image by sarah mccoy photo

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Serenity Now!

I don’t know how your brain organizes stressors, but I’m a swirly-thoughts kind of girl.  All the things I have to do, all the things I need to plan, all the things I may want to write later, all the things that just plain annoy me, intertwine in this cerebral cyclone.  Ibuprofen cannot touch it.

You can tell when the twirling strands of insanity exceed my mental capacity to cope because then I start clicking my teeth, the latest in a lifelong series of fun anxious twitches.  My husband has suggested electric shock therapy, which is his way of being helpful.  I prefer lists.

When I put things on a list, they magically disentangle themselves from my brain, exactly like the memories in Albus Dumbledore’s penseive.  But really, a list is just a bandaid.  Too many things on a list, and the list itself can weigh on you.  If you have ever completed a task NOT on your list, then written it down just to check it off, you know you are in my List Addiction Camp.

My mom recently started a Bible Study on trusting God.  This popped into my head while I was taking a walk, one thought in a parade of them, and I suddenly realized that trust is the root of this whole list thing.  In the list I trust.

When I write something down, I can cease to worry about it because it is as good as done.  At the very least, it can’t be forgotten.  That’s why a pen and pad are always by my nightstand, to ward off the late-night worry spree.  But trusting in myself and my notepad and my Klonopin (well not really) is not a permanent solution. 

Trusting God with my whole heart is so much harder than making lists, though.  I think I know why.  Take this most obvious of “Trust” verses:  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and he will direct your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6).  Well, the first part sounds good.  I would like to hand off my problems to God just the way I do to my list.  But the payoff is hard; ultimately, I want to direct my own paths.  See, when I pray for peace about a situation, that’s just what I’m asking for.  Peace, not a solution.  I probably already have a great solution or three worked out in my head.  I just need something to take the edge off while I get the work done my own way.

Maybe at the core of every anxiety-ridden girl is a little control freak, wishing on God as on a distant star.  And maybe it’s just me.  But God is demanding.  He asks me to give up control just when I most wish to cling to it.  You can do that when you’re God.  I just hope He never asks me to give up my lists.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Ibrahim: "Weeping and Other Hysterics"

With the kind of in-title derision that always sucks me in, this article by Middle East Forum associate director Raymond Ibrahim addresses one of my favorite debates: emotions vs. reason.

Weeping and Other Hysterics:
Have Muslim Apologists Nothing More to Offer?
March 14

"From Congressman Keith Ellison's emotional breakdown to Congresswoman Jackie Speier's accusations of "racism," last week's hearings on Muslim radicalization have made it clear that those who oppose the hearings have little of substance to offer. Still, the tactics used by such apologists—namely, appeals to emotionalism and accusations of racism—are influential enough that they need to be addressed and discredited once and for all.
For starters, though it would have been unheard of generations ago and seen as a sign of instability, public crying is the latest rage for politicians. A 2007 Associated Press report puts it well: "Tears, once kryptonite to serious presidential candidates, today are more often seen as a useful part of the political tool kit"—and are thus indicative of an increasingly therapeutic society, one more interested in a show of catharsis than facts."  Read More...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Racing Stripes

In 2010, two months before Gale Force’s due date, we got a new stroller.  It had two seats and racing stripes.  It had a big storage basket and sticky-up handles that could hold bags.   It supported my water bottle and Starbucks mocha simultaneously.  It was a mama Cadillac.

That month, the wives whose husbands were together in Afghanistan planned an ambitious trip from North Carolina to Washington D.C.  I went with one of my closest friends, and invited my mom to offset the daunting kid-to-parent ratio (she then had four). 

Within the first hour of our arrival on Andrews AFB, there were kids jumping on couches, cushions strewn across the small living space, and crying from all corners as the only drink between them all was Songbird’s three-hour-old OJ from a McDonald’s drive-through.  My 8-month-pregnant belly was reminding me that it’d been six hours since my last meal.  Darn that beltway traffic.

And then my friend spotted the poop.

Our house had a raw sewage leak in the back yard, it turned out.  Chaos ensued.  My friend called the after-hours housing line while Mom and I jetted to the Commissary and Wendy’s for emergency rations, and then we were re-packing eight suitcases and moving in the dark.  The trip was starting off swimmingly.

The next day our caravan of SUVs and minivans tried to head to the zoo.  In the drama of organizing multiple families, between us nearly 30 children, we didn’t get off base until 1:30: naptime.  A baby needed feeding.  Another kid needed sunglasses.  The caravan waited.

Then we all misunderstood the metro parking lot and got stuck, without exit tickets, in a pre-paid commuter lot.  As our combined five strollers, three of them double, headed for our train (complete with 30 minutes of figuring out the ticketing system), we found that the elevator was broken.  We were USMC wives, though, so we muscled our way through that and many other D.C. metro stops in the midst of lunch-rush.  We had lions and elephants to see.

That April day it was over 90° in the shade.  We hadn’t even seen anything yet.  Eventually, my mom and I broke off from the group for fear that I’d go into early labor with the exertion, and tried to find a restaurant where we could sit and relax and maybe, at least, see the cherry blossoms.  Following directions from a local, we walked six blocks to find the only restaurant in that district closed for the day.  Along the way, we found that the cherry blossoms had fallen the day before we arrived.

In the end, amidst exercise-induced contractions, we settled for Starbucks shakes and trail mix on a park bench while Songbird chased pigeons in the abandoned square.

If you’d have heard my conversation throughout that day, you’d have thought me a bit superficial.  It always came back to my new stroller:

“I just love the racing stripes!”
“Such a big sunshade!”
“This storage basket is so accessible!”
“Look how she can recline in here!”

It might have seemed like an obsession.

But verbalizing this one constant blessing was the best weapon we had against the swollen feet, fatigue and irritation of the day.  When my ire rose, I could say, “These double wheels have shock absorbers!” out loud and remember that Eloi, the God who sees me, saw me and my short fuse and blessed me all the same.

And when, at 8:30 pm, we were wrestling that enormous stroller up two flights of metro stairs because of a broken escalator, I was glad that I’d already branded my thankfulness for it on my heart.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Daughter in My Own Image

Her.Meneutics ran a recent post on the frilly princess culture in which our little girls are growing up.  It postulates that many seemingly innocent products and influences actually reinforce an obsession with appearance.  Sharon Hodde Miller writes, “Princess parties, toddler makeup lines and manicures seem harmless enough, and…they are — in a vacuum. It’s the totality of these products and messages that form an inescapable current that, by the time you awaken to it, you are nearly powerless to swim against.”  She goes on, aptly, to point out that the theme continues in adult Christian literature that lately emphasizes our status as daughters of the King more than it does our status as His servants.

This came on the tail of another article in which the blogger discussed make-up as a false source of confidence and recommended the terrifying experience of going out in public bare-faced.  Together, I take the makeup and the girly glitter as combined issues not only in womanhood, but in parenthood.

Whatever efforts I make to emphasize inward beauty to my daughters, or to steer them away from kindergarten pedicure parties, they will learn the most from what priorities they see me embody.  If I am a woman who cannot step out of doors with her hair un-coiffed and face unpainted, this is a spiritual issue, but it is also a parenting one.  I am showing my girls that appearance ranks high, whatever I say.

I knew a girl whose live-in boyfriend had never seen her without eye-liner.  At the time, in college, I wore little makeup because I was a jock, and frankly, lazy.  I found this girl’s situation both sad and horrifying.  The next year, I began to work as a waitress and wore mascara to work every night.  Soon, as I was spending more waking hours at work than not, I began to dislike the look of my face without mascara and found myself wearing it to class each morning, too.  So I drew a line: no official rules, but I wouldn’t wear makeup enough that I got too used to it.  Church, dates, sometimes just for fun.  But never enough to make me conflate my femininity with my eyelash length.

Now that I have kids, I find that these lines are more important than ever.  Although we are sweatpants-around-the-house people, I like us all to look clean, cute and coordinated when we go out.  Songbird knows I will force us all into something presentable and probably drag a brush over her head before we get in the car.  But because she sees that the proportion of time and energy spent on hair, makeup, and outfits is relatively small, I hope she's learning perspective along the way.  And when I DO spend time painting my nails, I don’t worry if she wants hers done too, because she’s learning to enjoy girly frills in a healthy way. 

I still have those mornings where I’ve tried on everything in the closet, where a flat iron and lip gloss seem to solve all life’s problems.  But on a busy Tuesday, that I would rather go to Bible Study in my workout clothes than miss altogether is a louder message to my daughter than any Disney-channel line.  It is easy for me to tell my girls they’re beautiful just as they are, but when they see me working daily to keep MY perspective, they’ll know I mean it as more than a cliché.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Girly Sins, Part 4 of 4

Nagging: It’s a Power Tool 

Every gal likes to get her own way.  Sometimes, my way makes the most sense, so I feel justified in insisting upon it.  It makes sense, for example, to put away all the dry dishes, clean any pots left soaking, and THEN start the next prep cycle on a clean, clear countertop.  I can’t imagine why anyone would multiply chaos by cooking amidst the prior mess. 

Cookie cooks like a mad artist.  He never sees the other things in the kitchen, doesn’t notice whether the pots onto which he throws a dirty strainer were actually clean, uses every pan in the kitchen, and leaves mucky things to harden into cement in bowls.  (The food is delicious).

Recently, when accused of nagging on the subject of kitchen habits, I asked Cookie, “Well when can I bring this up and have it heard as a congenial request, and when is it nagging?” 

I’m still not perfectly clear on that.  Maybe it depends on how snappy I am or whether I’m still riding the waves of frustration from a post-dinner scrubbing. 

But it turns out I use nagging as a form of soft power.  In diplomacy, we might call soft power coercion, influence, or “carrots” (versus sticks).  In marriages we call it nagging. 

I tell myself that I will win the dishes argument with my logic.  It makes more sense to clear and clean first.  To stack nesting bowls according to size.  To put cheese back in the lunchmeat drawer from whence it came, not on a random shelf.  But often the battle really comes down to whether Cookie would rather acquiesce or listen to my whining continuously for the rest of his earthly life.  Proverbs calls me a constant dripping, like the embodiment of Chinese water torture.  It'd be better to live squished into the eaves of the house or in a desert than to live with me and my Countertop Manifesto, it says.

That’s not a fair position in which to put your dearest friend.  My will, or your misery.  It’s also not submissive.  Cookie’s logic probably looks like this: Cook now, eat now, we’ll still have time to clean up later…I put the bowls in the cabinet; what’s nesting?…Wherever I put the cheese, I’m sure to find it again when I need it badly enough. 

Sometimes I find that I have an unpleasant choice.  Either I will stop nagging, and possibly, forever after, have to put the cheese in the drawer myself, or I will wear Cookie down, win the battle, and kill a tiny part of our friendship.

If we want men we can respect as the heads of our households, we have to accept that sometimes, after we’ve asked nicely, they’ll still say no.  And hey, at least he cooks.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Girly Sins, Part 3 of 4

Friend or Flirt?

In International Relations, we do lots of cost-benefit calculations.  Political Scientists like to call it a cost-benefit “calculus,” which usage has always baffled me.  But let’s do one now, whatever we call it.

Why do women flirt?  I think the two great rewards of flirting are the self-esteem boost we derive and the influence we exert thereby.

What is the effect?  Well first, we objectify ourselves and our gender.  If the same ladies fighting for equal pay and such use sex appeal to manipulate men or aid their careers, they undermine that cause fatally.

Second, we lead men to sin.  I don’t suggest we all wear burkas or avert our eyes.  But if I were on a diet and Cookie baked brownies and then sat next to me eating them, I would think it pretty insensitive.  If we love our brothers, we should know their struggles and try, within reason, not to multiply their temptations.  A man’s sin is on his own head, but Jesus counts as sin, too, the witting temptation of a fellow believer (Mark 9:42) . 

Lastly, it complicates relationships.  My husband, when we were still dating, constantly derided what he considered my naive views on male/female psychology.  As a people pleaser who loves to make new friends, I thought all the world was equally, innocently, delighted to meet me.  He cynically believed that no men could be trusted and that any friendliness would be construed as more.  I am still not convinced, as he is, that ALL men are predators!  And I could plausibly argue that I treat all new acquaintances with the same exuberance, irrespective of sex.  But he’s right in pointing out that the genders do not think alike, and certainly interpret signals differently. 

Which is why many women who claim not to be flirting (“I’m just friendly!”) are almost definitely being perceived as coy.  In this kind of communication, the perception is as important as the intent.  And usually those women do know it.  If you knowingly do something that will be perceived as flirting, regardless of intent, what does that say about you?

I am pretty sure (and I know there will be vehement disagreement on this) that no male-female friendship is 100% platonic…and therefore all male-female friendships should be treated very, very cautiously.  Deep down, we gals probably know this.  We just like the power we can wield or the ego boost we can glean too much to give up our game.  But it’s not a game, and those are unholy goals.  So let’s not toy with people, or feign ignorance about the implications of our interactions.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Girly Sins, Part 2 of 4


When I think of the Bible’s stance on complaining, the verse that comes to mind is Philippians 2:14, which says in the NIV, “Do everything without complaining or arguing.”  But it turns out that often, when the Bible uses the word “complaint” it is not condemnatory.  Job’s complaint is just.  The psalmist moans in his anguish and is shown mercy.  But I think of Philippians because that is the verse I make my children memorize.  Because I am just so annoyed by their complaining.  And the reason I am annoyed is that I don’t think their complaints are justified. 

Well, it turns out that God doesn’t enjoy the unjustified kind, either.  This one time, the Israelites “complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, and when the Lord heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp” (Numbers 11:1).  Harsh.  Want to know why? 

Well, when Songbird complains about the dinner I serve, I feel affronted because I’d prefer adulation.  “Oh, magnanimous mother,” she would exclaim, “From the toil of your hands such succulent fare! My stomach delights!” 

That has never happened.  More often I get, “But I wanted mac and cheese.”  Which hasn’t even the musicality of old English.

How much worse the offense when we are ungrateful towards God, who is actually deserving of adulation.  God wants us to cry out to him as the bearer of our burdens, the way Job does.  But he doesn’t need our chastisement for the cruddy way he’s arranged things, as if he made some mistakes.  That kind of complaining, the Philippians kind, says that I know better than God.  That I deserve better.  That’s the kind of prideful effrontery that kindles camp-consuming anger.

I’m really pretty myopic when it comes to my situation.  My perspective is all from the ground, in the moment.  If I learn my place, so to speak, not only can I trust God more and complain less, even about the most inscrutable of his plans, but I can also make some headway on that other kind of complaining, the kind that is, sadly, the female province.

We complain to, and about each other, our husbands, our kids, our jobs, our bosses, our husbands, our mothers, the weather, and our husbands.  I have thought of enacting a new policy: when I hear a woman trashing her husband to another woman, or worse, to her kids, I will smack her upside the head with my purse.  (There are some legal bugs to work out. This policy is still under consideration.  And my purse is quite small.)  But seriously.  No matter how much Cookie does for me, my mind will still dwell on the things he’s neglected.  We are self-centered, and we will always notice the offenses against us even as we excuse or ignore those we cause.  So unlike Job, we are usually not justified before God when we do this kind of complaining.  The solution is uncomplicated.  Wait for it…

Stop Complaining.

I think there’s only one way to do this and that’s to get to know Christ better.  When we do that, we increasingly view ourselves in (unflattering) comparison.  And from that perspective, we feel less entitled, less self-righteous, and more compassionate.  Instead of feeling indignant about the overflowing trashcan, I can be excited to bless Cookie by taking it out first.  And as a bonus, no one will burn my camp or hit me with a purse.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Girly Sins: Part 1 of 4

This week, I’m going to enumerate a few of what I consider easy sin traps for women—believers and unbelievers alike.  Let’s jump in with that juiciest of temptations:


Why is gossip woman’s sin?  What tempts us into it?  Actually, let’s tackle the second question first.  A lot of times it’s because having inside knowledge gives us a sense of importance.  If this is our motivation, gossip is idolatry.  It seeks to fulfill us where only God can, to give us an impression of worth when our true worth lies in our identity in Christ.  Sometimes I think it can begin with an innocent desire to share excitement (or horror!).  But what begins benignly can become menacing.  In A Praying Life, Paul E. Miller claims that gossip’s primary offering is “deadly intimacy.”  Think about that.  Gossip appeals to women because we DO seek intimacy in friendships.  We rely on a greater network of intimate relationships than do men.  Gossip simulates intimacy with the person we spill to, but beware: it can destroy intimacy permanently with the people we dish about!

But why pin it on us gals?  I recall Cookie seething at an accusation that he had spread a rumor about another man’s marriage.  He was mad because he was innocent, but even more so that anyone would think he CARED enough to whisper around the office.  That’s the thing: guys often just don’t care about the dramas we find titillating.  Still, why cast blame? Does it matter? 

I think it does, because if we know our worst tendencies, we can seek earnestly to eradicate them.  And if we know that temptations are not doled out equally, we can’t excuse ourselves that, well, everyone does it.  As Christians, we know we shouldn’t gossip.  We may think we’ve got a handle on it.  But it’s easy to spread a story around the church pew under the guise of confession, a prayer request, or a loving concern.  Off the top of my head, here are a few test questions to distinguish a healthy share from gossip before you raise your hand in prayer group. 

Could you share this privately with one trusted prayer partner instead of every Christian you know?  If so, you can keep the confidence and still multiply prayer power. 

How many people would you want to know, were the prayer request about you?  Do you even have permission to share? 

Are you just really itching to spill it?  If so, your motivation might stem more from the thrill of having a great story to tell than from a sincere concern.  If you are still unsure, run it by a mentor before you risk falling into this trap.

My friend began a story recently, “I have to tell you what one of the school moms said.”  Then she stopped.  And started.  And stopped again.  And finally said, “You know what, I probably shouldn’t tell this story.”  It wasn’t even an incriminating story, but it had occurred to her that it would probably be gossip.  And I was happy not to hear it, not because I don’t enjoy a drama or a laugh at someone’s faux pas, but because she had just done the impossible and tamed the incorrigible tongue!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Under Which Banner

When I responded to a Daniel Pipes posting several weeks ago regarding the compatibility of Islam with democracy, I made a mental note to return to a larger question that arose for me.  I am going to comment on that question now, but with regards to Christianity instead. 
Religions have a way of morphing over years and centuries.  Doctrines fade from popularity; practices are invented or dropped along the way.  Sometimes these changes are made intentionally, for expediency (think Henry VIII) or to lend divine weight to human causes and power-grabs (the selling of indulgences in the 1500s; the recruitment of suicide bombers to ostensibly religious groups with underlying political or financial motivations?).  In Pipes’ article, he suggested that Islam might eventually change to fit more comfortably into contemporary political frameworks.  At what point does the branch grow so far from its roots that it becomes a different thing entirely?

I debated this a lot (with myself) when I briefly considered writing a book on comparative religions.  I was studying Mormonism as a distinct religion, but was continually disturbed by its efforts to identify itself as Christian.  That’s a story for another day, but here’s what I come back to: if most religions have a source, a sacred text or some comparable foundation, then any strain that negates or deviates significantly from that source is a new religion.  Christianity is based on the gospel.  I guess it seems unambiguous to me: not that everyone should be won over by the gospel, but that its essence is clearly laid out for acceptance or rejection.  Jesus is pretty forthright about who He is, why he is come, and what is at stake.   

Sometimes, though, we deviate with the best of intentions.  Something rings false to us, and we seek to right it.  If we do this by referring to the scriptures to dig out what we are meant to understand, we will usually keep the church centered.  When instead we are guided by our feelings, when we seek to arrive at a place that is less unsettling to our sensibilities through our own reasoning, that’s when we are in danger of straying out from under our religious banner head altogether. 

Rob Bell seems to be heading down that path, his vast readership in tow.  Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung deal with this issue here and here The problem with Christianity is that with all its many variants, it isn’t meant to be a Religion in the sense of lists of dos and don’ts and ceremony and trappings.  It’s just the gospel, and if it’s true, how that impacts your way of living.  Parts of it are uncomfortable.  The application part, in particular, can cause division.  But it’s when our interpretations become more and more loosely tied to the gospel itself that we’re in danger of heresy.
The Bible is less like Disney’s fairytale animated films and more like the Brothers Grimm with warts and blood and dark parts.  It’s about sin and consequence, and love and intervention, and salvation and death.  But a lot of people want the Disney version.  It’s prettier, it feels better, it fits our lifestyles as they already are.  So Christians are tempted to de-emphasize the wart-ier parts in the spirit of inclusiveness.  Let’s preach more on love and less on the wages of sin, more on atonement and less on its limitations.  You see it in the Emergent church trend.   This may or may not have been Bell’s original motivation in abandoning, say, much of Romans.  It is often the motivation for watering down our message: fear of turning people off.  The gospel is offensive; it’s best to just accept that.  God doesn’t need our protection, doesn’t need us to gloss over His culturally unacceptable side.  If we win a few church attendees this way, we lose even more souls as they devote themselves to a gospel that is no gospel at all. 

For more on heaven and hell and those hard-to-swallow doctrines, try this short treatment by Andy Stanley: How Good is Good Enough, or this even shorter book excerpt by Kevin DeYoung.   

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Best Books for Budding Athletes

All parents have priorities.  An organized playroom.  Regular naps.  Obedience (with or without whining).  And in our family, Early-Onset Sports Fanaticism.

Proudly, we report that all of my parents' grandchildren can identify Eagles and Phillies' paraphernalia before the age of 18 months.  In her crib, beneath the circling green-jerseyed birds of prey on her mobile, Songbird would spell out the Eagles fight song chant to the best of her phonetic capabilities: “Fly, Eagles, fly on da road to Viccar-ee. A-B-C-D-13-9- EAGLES!”

But it is Tet’s son, Baby Bettis, who does us all proud with his extensive knowledge of football terms and hand signals.  Not quite two, he can demonstrate passing, catching and tackling (he practices on babies in the church nursery), but also kickoff, blocking, and facemask penalty.

Don’t feel defeated if your child doesn’t know a soccer ball from a hockey puck.  Here, the ultimate source of early sports training for your indoctrinating pleasure:

Touchdown, Home Run, Goal, and Slam Dunk, not to mention Sports A-Z by David Diehl.  Fun illustrations (often inspired by recognizable athletes of note) depict the most important sports terms and concepts your toddler needs to know if he is not to embarrass himself during PTI.  

To round out your baby’s education, try NFL brand’s 1-2-3, which teaches the numbers 1-10 in terms of receivers, famous stadiums, and the Vince Lombardi Trophy. 

You too can achieve parenting greatness like Tet!