On Joy

So, my girlfriend has been encouraging me to write a final post to close out this blog forever and always. .. … I don’t honestly want to say that this will be the last post that I ever write on this blog. I might need it again someday for venting, or for better and more edifying purposes. However, reading back through these posts about a year later I was definitely not in a great place when I wrote them. … Admittedly, when I wrote most of these I was hurting, angry, and hadn’t slept in two or three days, but nonetheless, I wasn’t in a good place. However, I do want to write a last post (for a while at least) and give anyone of bothers to read this an update on my life. First things first, I have a girlfriend now. She’s a pretty amazing woman who puts up with all of my problems and loves me in spite of them. Honestly, she’s a woman who looks for reasons to love me and be with me, instead of looking for reasons to walk away, and that’s a different feeling for me, but I am definitely thankful for it (p.s. she’s kind of gorgeous too, seriously, really pretty). However, lest the title fool you, she is not the reason that I am joyful. I think that my relationship with her is a wonderful thing, and it is absolutely a huge blessing in my life, but the reason for my joy is much deeper than that.

This is the thing that I’ve learned over the past year. Joy is a virtue, and like all virtues it is developed over time through a process of individual choices that lead to the formation of habits and then become dispositions. This is a slow process that takes both the right environment (for me that was my Church, a local coffee shop, my roommates, and happify.com), an intentional effort to develop the virtue, and the inherent capacity for that virtue. In all of this God has been working in my life in incredible ways since I wrote my last post. Honestly, looking back, this blog was a place for me to vent during a difficult time in my life. Not the most difficult, but still a difficult time. Actually, if you go back and look at the dates on my posts, you can track the initial development of joy in my life by the length of time between posts :P. It’s kind of sadly funny. Anyway, God had created a joyful spirit in me. I’m not going to say that I’m a perfect epitome of joy… far from it actually, but I do like to think that I am now a generally happy and joy-filled person.

It was after this development of joy that I met my girlfriend, who I am going to keep referring to as my girlfriend… you don’t get any other name for her. And after that things started happening in short order. I’ve moved, and I’m now in a graduate program looking at finishing up next year and hopefully starting a Ph.D. program sometime in the next couple of years. I’m reading… a lot… I managed to set myself up with about 45 books to read this semester, something like 10,000 pages I think… I’ll be honest, I haven’t really done the math. From time to time I feel overwhelmed. However, in those times, I turn to God because he is good, and if you take away anything from this post (you know… the three people who actually read it :P) this is what I want you to take away: 1) Joy is a virtue, it comes with time, practice, and reliance of God and 2) God is good. He is good when things are easy, and he is good when things just plain suck. He is good when you are suffering, and he makes your suffering good.

That’s the thing that I really want you to think about. God takes our worst times, whether it is a hard class, a lost job, a difficult marriage, or a dying child, whatever your worst time is, God is there with you in it, and he will make it good… if you let him. I absolutely believe that we are capable of stopping God’s good work in our lives. Of hindering him, walking away from him, and ignoring him. However, if you trust him, if you rely on him, he will make your most difficult experiences something to rejoice over. Not because everything was suddenly fixed, I’m not preaching health/wealth gospel here, but because he was so good in them, and because he made you good through them. So, remember: joy is a virtue and God is good :). And have a better day!

The Power of a Joyful Life… or Revisiting the Notion of Happiness

I’ve mentioned before (at least I think I’ve said it here… if not I know I’ve said it elsewhere), that I dislike John Piper’s notion of Christian Hedonism. It strikes me that any philosophy based solely or primarily in what brings me the most pleasure is problematic, regardless of the ends it espouses. If my pleasure is the ultimate goal, then I am putting myself at the center of all things, and this is a place that I should never be. That being said, for the past two years God has been teaching me about joy, and I feel like I’m finally getting to the heart of the lesson. For most of my life happiness has been… unimportant. My goal was to be strong, or to be powerful, or to be righteous, or to be good, or to be spiritual (kind of in that order actually), and happiness was something that I always saw as an addendum at best, or a distraction at worst.

A few years ago a friend of mine was lecturing me about the way I approach life and asked me, ‘don’t you want to be happy?’ The only response that I could give was ‘Eh, maybe I guess…’ I want to stress here that my goal was not to be unhappy. I’ve never seen misery as a sign of righteousness (or at least I don’t think I have), but I also never made it a goal to be happy. Over the past two years God has been slowly changing this.

So, recently my bible study (yes, I’m part of a bible study now… yes, I realize that I haven’t posted in ‘like forever’ which translates to a couple of months in real time… thus proving the theory of internet relativity:T=CPI or Time=Care exponentially multiplied by the Perspective of the Individual)… anyway, my bible study has been studying the book of Ecclesiastes, which is a book that I’ve loved for a long time, but recently I’ve had a new perspective on. I think that, at its core, Ecclesiastes is an admonition to joy. The author repeatedly points to the pointlessness, injustice, and repetitiveness of life, and then responds to himself by arguing that true purpose can be found in God.

In chapter one and two he shows that none of the things we normally cling to: labor, love, wealth, knowledge, and pleasure, can possibly serve as the purpose of a meaningful life. All of these are fleeting, ephemeral, and ultimately vanity. However, in chapter 3 he shows that, while none of these things is the point of life, all of them have a point in life. This is an important distinction. A life lived for the pursuit of any of these things will ultimately be unfulfilling, because they are, in themselves, vane. However, all of them are gifts given by God to bring pleasure to life and add to its ultimate purpose. Solomon argues that everything happens for a reason, and that God is the ultimate arbiter of that reason, so should we argue that he got things wrong?

Chapters four and five continue in this vein, showing the vanity and injustice of everyday life when we live it without God, but the pleasure that God can bring through that same vanity when we place him at the center of our lives. I have long been somewhat enamored by the mystic ascetics (or ascetic mystics… whatever you want to call them). And I think that true joy can be found in the ascetic pursuit of God, but this is not the only way to glorify him.

Whoever we are, whatever path God takes us on (and I’m not trying to preach Universalism here, if you think God is calling you to be a Buddhist Monk you need to revisit the scriptures), we can and should find joy when we truly place him at the center of our lives. This is something that I’m currently working on. For a long time I, like the Pharisees, turned moral virtue and righteousness into an idol, all too often replacing my worship with God with a worship of goodness. Even when I left this behind, I didn’t seek to enjoy God, but simply to endure with him.

My circumstances haven’t changed much in the past few years. I’m still single, still poor, and I still have debts that I’ll probably never be able to realistically pay (though this is in God’s hands). I still struggle with depression, fear, doubt, worry, etc. However, I’m struggling less and enjoying more. I’m learning to find my joy in God and truly, thoroughly worship him.

Fear of Girls

If you haven’t ever seen Fear of Girls you should look it up on youtube. All three videos are hilarious, and they get progressively less disturbing, which is definitely a good thing. That being said, I find myself in this place right now. Karategirl is back in the picture. If you don’t remember, about five or six months ago there was a woman who’d joined the karate school that I help teach at. She’s a lovely woman who I found myself attracted to right off the bat. I asked a friend at the school to introduce us, and asked her out, and she promptly turned me down. Admittedly, she turned me down because, in her own words she ‘wasn’t dating right now’, which I’ve been given no reason to doubt in the past five months. I’ve tried to get to know her, and generally failed. We’ve had a number of superficial discussions that ended very quickly. However, a few days ago I messaged her on facebook (there was a good reason… I’m not going to share it) and we had a very good conversation. I think this was mostly just because she was hurting at the time and wanted someone to talk to, but I honestly felt like it was the first conversation that I’d had with the actual Karategirl, instead of with the mask that she wears, and I rather liked what I saw.

So, I’m planning on asking her out again the next time I see her (probably sometime end of this week or next week). However, I’m a little bit terrified. Am I scared that she’ll turn me down again? Well, this is certainly a possibility. Honestly, I think it might be a probability. However, it’s not something I’m particularly scared of. I’ve been shot down plenty of times. It’s no fun, but it’s not really a big deal either. If she turns me down then I’ll wait a while, try to get to know her a little better, and then try again.

Honestly, what I’m really afraid of is that I’m making the same mistake again. I’m afraid that she won’t turn me down, that she’ll say yes, go out with me, really enjoy the way I treat her, but in a month or three decide that I’m a great guy, but not really what she’s looking for. It’s been about a year since Peaches (yes there’s a reason for the name… no, I never called her that… shutup) decided that I just wasn’t right for her. In her words I was ‘everything she was looking for’, but she was too scared to do anything about it. Admittedly, Peaches was not the right girl for me. Still, it’s been a pattern with me for a long time, and I’m scared that I’m just repeating that pattern. The thing is, I think that I’d be scared of repeating the pattern no matter who the woman was. Peaches was 19 and going through some serious emotional trauma. She wasn’t ready for a relationship, and probably didn’t need me pushing for one. If I’d been a better man I would have been her friend and dated someone else. Instead, I fell for her and waited for her to be ready, even though I said I wouldn’t. She never was.

Karategirl is not 19, and to my knowledge has not had any significant relationship traumas. She has some problems, yes (we all do), but they don’t seem to have anything to do with romance or dating. I also know that she’s been single and apparently healthy for at least five+ months, which is definitely a good thing (well… from my perspective at least). Nonetheless, I’m utterly and completely terrified. I’m terrified that I’m being an idiot. I’m terrified that I’m going to make the same mistakes over again no matter what I do. I’m scared that I’m going to get hurt again in the same way. I’m scare that I haven’t grown at all, haven’t changed at all… I guess I’m scared that the past year has been wasted, and that I’m about to prove that.

Ultimately, Karategirl is not Peaches. I am fully cognizant of that fact. However, I need to not be the same person that I was a year ago for anything to happen, and I think I’m afraid that’s the problem.

Honestly… I just hope that she winds up being the woman that will find a reason to be with me, instead of finding a reason to walk away.

Questions

So, I started the year reading Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I’m not finished yet… obviously. However, it has inspired a few questions that I wanted to jot down before I forget them:

On the Omnipresence of God:

1) Is presence a necessary quality of sustaining power?

2) If presence is a necessary quality of sustaining power (which Aquinas seems to assume) then is God present in hell through his sustaining power (opposing the common Christian doctrine that the primary torment of hell is the absence of God) or is hell a self-sustaining entity (opposing the common Christian doctrine that God sustaining power is necessary for the maintenance of all things)?

3) Is God present in hell? If so, is the primary torment of hell not the total separation from God? If not, can God really be said to be omni-present?

On Women:

1) My niece has been trying to convince me that I’m the kind of guy every woman dreams of marrying. This strikes me as prima facie false. However, is it possible that it is true and I’m either a) pursuing the wrong women (certainly I’ve dated many of the wrong women, but the ‘right women’ simply reject me out of hand) or b) for whatever reason quality women simply overlook me, don’t give me a chance? If the latter, why? (I don’t think I’m ever likely to actually answer this question…)

2) Rousseau argues that women are incapable of true virtue (though his definition of true virtue is questionable in the first place). Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, tends to argue that women are capable of true virtue (and she generally has a stronger definition of virtue), but they must be trained in virtue in the same way that men are. I tend to agree with the latter, but this leaves me wondering why so many women seem to reject the need to be trained in virtue? I assume culture elements are primarily responsible, but is this a valid assumption?

3) Why in the world do women obsess over clothing… especially accessories?

On School:

1) Is God finally calling me back to school? He seems to be, and things seem to be falling into place, but I find myself feeling very cynical and assuming that it will all fall apart before long.

2) Can I actually make the grade? I assume that this will be answered in time if God is calling me back to school.

I’m also writing again. This, I think, is a good thing. Although I’m working on a story that I’ve tried to write several times before. We’ll see if I can manage to finish it this time.

What is Wisdom?

So, I promised that I’d write more about each of the virtues that I’d put forth concerning masculinity. I already wrote a little about courage, though probably not nearly enough, and the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be wise. This is not to say that I’ve actually come to a conclusion about it, but I have some thoughts. First, I think we often confuse knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Every journalist knows that there are six (not five) important questions: who, what, when, where, how, and why. I think that these questions also provide a good progressive exemplar for the differences between the above terms. Knowledge is simple information that has been memorized. A person with knowledge can determine the who, what, or where of a question, perhaps the when of a historical question, but he can’t go beyond this point. The knowledgeable man has only plain information at his disposal. A man with understanding not only can determine the who and what, but also the where and importantly the how of a question. While knowledge provides only rote information, understanding brings with it the ability to apply that information. For instance, a man with the knowledge of punching may be able to tell you what a punch is or where to hit someone, but he can’t show you how to actually throw an effective punch. This requires understanding. Understanding moves this person from simple knowledge of what a punch is to the ability to use that knowledge effectively. Wisdom, however, adds a third dimension: the when and why.

That is to say, in my example of the punching man, a man with wisdom will not only be able to throw an effective punch, but will be able to determine when it is good to throw that punch. He can answer the question ‘why would you punch someone’. This is, I think, exceedingly rare. Many people, like Richard Dawkins, dismiss the why questions of life as entirely unimportant (perhaps one of the greatest mistakes I’ve seen anyone make). Many others never even reach the point of considering the why questions of life. It’s not that these people have dismissed the questions as unimportant, it’s that they’ve never even considered whether the why questions might be important. So, having said this, I’m not at all sure that I’m wise. Being wise requires not only knowing enough to ask the why questions, but being able to answer them. Honestly, I don’t think that I have many meaningful answers. I can pretty easily give a lecture about what lots of other people think about a particular question, and there are some question that I can even tell you what I think, but to actually answer a why question. I don’t know about that.

About a week ago a friend called me ‘a wise man’. I responded by saying, ‘I make too many mistakes to be wise’. He asked, ‘Isn’t that how you become wise?’ When he asked that question I realized that I honestly didn’t have an answer. I have the beginnings of an idea of what wisdom is, but I can’t really say how one actually becomes wise. There are lots of people in the world with lots of opinions, and I’m fairly sure that wisdom means ignoring 90% of them. However, even with that tongue in cheek definition, I’m not entirely sure how to actually do that. Don’t get me wrong, I can ignore people with the best of them, but actually knowing who to ignore and who to listen to is another issue entirely. Take the current scandal involving Mark Driscoll, while it’s fairly clear that Driscoll hasn’t been particularly careful with his writing, there are a hundred different opinions ranging from people screaming for his resignation to people claiming that he didn’t do it in the first place to people claiming that even if he did, it wasn’t wrong. The sheer amount of voices is quickly overwhelming (I spent 3 hours last night just reading about this), not to mention the people connecting this to his teaching on Esther and his views of women in general.

So, how do we begin to parse this situation? Does a wise man simply sit back and wait? Perhaps for a while, but certainly not forever. A wise man is not an eternally passive man. However, we can say that the wise man knows when to act. A man with understanding might know what to do, but a wise man can see when to do it. He knows when to wait and when to step forward. He knows when to listen and when to speak. This isn’t an easy thing. I think that’s all I’ve got for now. I definitely need to think about this more.

Sander’s Family Christmas

Tonight I went to see Sanders Family Christmas at a local theater. I’ll be honest, I went because a friend who works for the theater asked me to come and see her work, not because of any particular desire to see the play. I’ve never really been fond of Christmas… well, anything. That probably sounds like a strange thing to say, and it’s gotten me in trouble more than once in Christian circles. The play was good though… well, it was good in that it was well-acted and well-produced all around. It was also the general mish-mash of Psuedo-Christian pluralism that generally makes me dislike Christmas. I’m not saying that anyone who mentions Santa Claus should be stoned, or even that it’s wrong to do in church, but this particular play had high moments and low moments. One of the low moments was when the matriarch of the family condemned Santa Claus (something about Jesus punching him in the face) right before the family happily sang Jingle Bells, which is clearly not a song with any particularly Christian influences.

This is the thing that gets me about Christmas… Christians get just about everything wrong. From the ages of Mary and Joseph (Mary was probably in her early teens [14 maybe] and Joseph was probably in his late twenties to early thirties) to the wise men (who almost certainly didn’t show up in Jerusalem until a year and a half to two years after Jesus was born). We gleefully mix hymns with clearly pagan songs, sing hymns with horrific theology, decorate small fire-hazards in our living rooms, and do it all without any concept of what any of it means or is supposed to mean. Honestly, I think if people were just more aware of what they were doing I’d be okay with it. There’s nothing wrong with Christmas songs or Santa Claus per say, it just that I don’t like them and I get frustrated with everyone who looks at me like an inhuman monster when I say that. Then again, I am something of a Scrooge and the words ‘Bah Humbug’ have been known to leave my mouth… frequently.

However, there was something from the play tonight that I did appreciate very much. One of the characters, the patriarch’s brother… I can’t remember his name (Sam, I think… or something like that) has something of a checkered past. When he gets up to speak he speaks of his past and of how the family has helped him change. One of the lines (and I’m sure that I’ve butchered it) say,’I’ve gotta reckon that God takes no account of talent. It’s a man’s character that matters.’ That’s the gist of the line… probably with a little Terry Pratchett thrown in since I was listening to Wee Free Men on the way home. This made me think about my own life. Most specifically the past seven(ish) years since I graduated from seminary.

Don’t get me wrong, I can me a right ass. I can be arrogant, judgmental, thoughtless, and stubborn. If the beginning of this post doesn’t prove that then the rest of this blog probably will. However, I’d like to think that I’m less of an ass and more caring, compassionate, and hopefully a little more humble than I was seven years ago. I’ve certainly learned a lot about life, about people, and about faith. I’ve been beaten over the head a few times, badly bruised both by the church and by those outside of the church, and broken repeatedly. Honestly, seven years ago I was full of myself and extremely in-secure. Now… well, I’m not sure that I actually have much to offer, but what I do have to offer I will.

As I write this I’m talking with my niece about colleges and about the degree program that I’m applying to. I remember when I first got out of school applying to one doctoral or Th.M. program after another and getting denied by one program after another. Now… well, I’m just hoping that they let me into an M.A. program and that I actually have what it takes to do well in the program. It’s scary, and a part of me is saying ‘I’m comfortable here and I don’t want to leave’. Another part of me is saying ‘It’s worth it.’ I still haven’t called Dr. Liederbach yet, but I’m going to. It might wait until January, as I’m sure all the professor’s down there are ridiculously busy at the moment, but I will call him, and I will finish my application and submit it. And then… well, I’ll hope that for once my desires line up with God’s (I wish I was better at that), and I’ll wait for him to kick me in the head if they don’t. That’s the thing I’ve learned more than anything else. What I want doesn’t matter if it’s not the same as what God wants.

A Culture of Fear

I generally take Tuesdays off. I might log into my classroom to answer any questions that students have posted, but beyond that I don’t touch it. On my days off I generally do a fair amount of reading. Grading papers all day, every day is not conducive to reading (either scholarly or otherwise), and so on days when I am working I generally have to do what reading I intend to actually complete before I start working. However, on Tuesdays, I can read all day if I want to (every so often I actually do). As part of my reading today I found this article. While I agree with the post as a whole (though I do keep a facebook album of my nephew’s baby pictures, I’ll probably take it down (or at least make it unviewable) when they turn five or so. However, there is one specific point that she makes in the middle of her article that I think is particularly important to keep in mind.

We live in a culture that promotes fear. Every day we are told by various news outlets that crime rates are rising exponentially. Friends, churches, various celebrities, and recognized national speakers all warn us that we are in danger, or our children are in danger, or our homes are in danger. Commercials actually play a big part in this now. Security companies sell their services by warning us that, without their protection, our homes will be broken into (of course, I could just buy an ADT sticker, put it in my front window, and achieve much the same effect as actually hiring the company). Drug companies warn us that if we don’t take their new phramaceutical miracle we will inevitably die of a heart attack (of course, the warning that their drug might actually cause said heart attack is rushed to the point of being unintelligable). Facebook news feeds  and twitter are commonly filled with claims and articles (many of them easily falsifiable) that both infuriate and terrify us, such as the ‘scandal‘ a week or two ago concerning Costco’s ‘attack on Christianity‘ and the outrage from fearful Christians, which then sparked outrage in response from equally fearful liberals. Of course, when someone actually bothered to ask Caleb Kaltenbach (the pastor in question) what he thought, his response wasn’t directed at Costco. All of that hubub over a labeling error… it boggles the mind. Whether our response is to be outraged or to quail in the corner, the response is inspired by our fear of what the reported situation means.

However, much of this fear is utterly without any realistic foundation. Jennifer Doverspike (author of the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post) isn’t technically correct that our children are ‘safer than they’ve ever been’. Children in the mid-1950s enjoyed one of the lowest violent crime rates in US history, and they probably were a little bit safer (at least from criminals), but the intent of her message is perfectly accurate. We are fairly safe, our children are fairly safe. In the last 100 years the homicide rate (the near-universally recognized best indicator for violent crime rates) has remained fairly steady. At it’s lowest (the mid to late ’50s) the homicide rate was four murders per 100,000 citizens. At it’s highest (the early ’80s) it was a markedly increased 10 murders per 100,000 citizens. That’s right, in 1980, the most dangerous year in the past century, you had a 0.0001 chance of being murdered. Personally, I can see how that would terrify everyone. Really, I mean, the idea that I might be selected out of a crowd of 100,000 people is utterly terrifying. If you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic.

Since the early ’80s violent crime rates have actually fallen drastically. They stayed high through the ’80s and early ’90s, then dropped in the mid ’90s, only to rise again. Then, in the early 2000s violent crime rates plummeted to a mere 6 murders per 100,000 citizens. Needless to say, this isn’t something that any of us should be overly terrified about. Now, obviously, local crime rates differ. At the moment, if you live in inner city Chicago, IL then you certainly have more reason to be cautious than people who live in Wake Forest, NC. However, in general our culture pushes us to an utter and abstract terror of everything that is not even remotely justified. Doverspike’s points about how we have let this fear affect our children are well founded (and, as I said above, I agree that we need to treat their online lives with a little less fear and a little more respect).

Instead of being sucked into a culture of fear, we should be exploring the nation we live in. (Oh, and by the way, I have actually lived in close proximity to drug dealers for an extended period of time. Sometimes they wanted to shoot each other, but I never found one who wanted to shoot me. This isn’t to say that drug dealers aren’t dangerous, but they don’t generally go around willy-nilly shooting potential clientele.) We should be exploring our neighborhoods, getting to know our neighbors, meeting people at local venues, and enjoying our lives. If we weren’t so busy being scared and then mad and then scared again, we might actually succeed in both finding meaning in life and sharing our faith with friends who don’t know much about it, rather than trying to ram it down the throats of strangers.

So, my point? Isn’t it obvious? Plato set out four virtues: Courage, Wisdom, Justice, and Temperance. As a culture we encourage none of these. Personally, I think it’s time to man-up.