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.


I often consider living on top of a mountain somewhere, or joining a monastery, or finding an island someplace where no one will bother me. In his play No Exit (Huis Clos), Jean Paul Sartre presents several excellent points. Sartre was by no means a Christian, but in No Exit he shows a particular insight into the human condition that I rather enjoy. Two particular quotes stand out, one of which Sartre is quite famous for. No Exit is about three people, Garcin, Ines, and Estelle, who are trapped together in a room in hell. As the play develops the three reveal their true natures to one another, hoping that these revelations will help them come to terms with their situation. However, in actuality, the revelations instead cause the three to hate on another all the more. The resolution of the play, Sartre’s thesis statement as it were, comes in Garcin’s realization that “Hell is other people”, which is the quote Sartre is famous for. However, another excellent point in the play is Ines’ declaration that “we are our lives and nothing else”. Plenty of atheist principles could be read into this latter statement, but for the moment I’m going to choose to take the line at face value.

I’ve spoken before about the cyclical nature of life that is portrayed in the competing standards of Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism essentially argues that if I am right internally (right being), then I will do the right things (right action). Confucianism, on the other hand, argues that if I do the right things, I will become right internally. These are both true and both false. Because of the imperfection of man (i.e. natural sin) no matter how deeply I cultivate my being, I will still be prone to wrong actions, and no matter how many right things I do, I may still do them from wrong motives. However, the opposite is true. If I truly cultivate a right spirit, then I will be more prone to right actions, and in pursuing right actions, I will encourage the rightness of my spirit. Thus, both right actions and right being are necessary for a right life. However, Ines’ claim is, on the surface, true. I am my life. Whether I am judged by men for my actions or judged by God for my heart, both are formed through the life that I choose to live. I cannot be ‘essentially a good person’ if I cultivate neither right being nor right actions. If God is not in my heart, and if my actions are not focused on his glory and the well-being of my fellow man, then my life is without value. I have nothing to offer to either God or man beyond my life.

However, my life is far from perfect. As is yours (don’t get cocky). We are all fallen people, prone to inflict immense amounts of pain upon one another. We are all selfish, even at the best of times, careless, and cruel. Even when we have the best of intentions we still manage to hurt one another, and so when our intentions (as is so often the case) are less than the best, we become for others the very hell that we fear. Please, don’t take me wrongly, I am not denying the existence of a literal hell (though I find more references in scripture to ‘outer darkness’ than to ‘fire and brimstone’. Nor am I denying that the torments of hell will far surpass the pains of this world. What I am saying is that the closest we will ever come to knowing hell during our lives is in the community of others. Similarly, the closest we will ever come to knowing heaven during our lives is in the community of others.

Tonight, a couple of friends and I were bitching about women. Specifically about the repetitive cowardice, dishonesty, and truly perverse expectations/desires that we see in most of the women who populate our city. Specifically the Christian women who populate our city. There are times when some (not all) of these women have shown a true depth of compassion, grace, and love. However, there are also times when each of them have shown a callousness and cruelty that, to this day, I find astounding. Women who have lost much of our respect through their actions towards ourselves and others (we kept the conversation very general so as to avoid gossiping about anyone in particular). Women whose lives, and thus whose selves, have inevitably been tainted by the stain of sin.

I live in a culture that often presents women as ‘innocent’, ‘pure’, ‘chaste’, or ‘virtuous’. I live in a culture that essentially says to women ‘you’re already morally perfect, so you don’t need to try, focus on your looks instead’. I cannot express how utterly devastating this culture is to American women. Forget the focus on looks. Forget the extreme dieting. Forget the size zero obsession. None of these even begin to compare to the incredible lack in moral quality that this attitude has encouraged in women. Instead of developing their hearts and minds too many American women have focused on career, appearance, relationships, etc to find their identity and virtue. The problem is that none of these things actually develops either identity or virtue. Instead, Christian women should be focusing on developing a strong relationship with God and learning the moral qualities that exemplify that relationship. This is where true identity and virtue lies, regardless of gender.

List Makers

Americans are obsessed with observable, trackable progress. I’ve noted this for many years in martial arts. For any of you familiar with martial arts you probably know that the system of ranking by colored belts is an American invention. In fact, since I started practicing twenty years ago, the number of belts has increased while the time required between them has decreased. When I started most schools recognized white, yellow, green, blue, brown, and black belts, and there was generally anywhere from three to six months between tests. This time increased the higher you went, so you might wait three months to test from white to yellow, but a year to test from brown to black.  Today I know of many schools that recognize white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown, and black belts, and some schools require less than a month to test from one belt to the next.

This is not what martial arts used to be. I briefly attended one school in Virginia Beach that used an archaic Japanese ranking system. When I started the first thing the instructor told me was that I had to understand that there were no belts in his class. I was a student until he told me to go start a school, at which point I would be an instructor. I had senior students (everyone else in the class), and I was the most junior student. Outside of this there were no ranks, tests, or obvious format of progression. I loved this system, and if I hadn’t moved away, I’d probably still be studying there.

I mention this because it is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in American culture: we want to be in control. Whether it is making a bucket list for the week/month/year, making a detailed list of short/long term goals, or making a list of qualities that we want to see in a spouse, we like to try to control our lives and the world around us. I’m not saying that having a list of goals or desires is a bad thing. It can help keep you on track, help you focus, and help you say no when you need to say no. I have a short list of long term goals that I’m working towards (I’ve posted this before). I have a short list of things that I’m looking for in a future spouse:

1) I want a wife who is a committed Christian with a visible desire to grow closer to Christ.

2) I want a wife who is intelligent and capable of carrying on an interesting conversation.

3) I want a wife who is kind-hearted and compassionate: who consistently puts others before herself.

4) I want a wife who is beautiful to me and to whom I am physically attracted.

5) I want a wife who is between 5 and 11 years younger than me (6-10 ideally, with 8-10 being the real ‘sweet spot’). Right now I’m actively against dating anyone who is more than 11 years younger than I am, simply because it’s been a habit that lead to very painful results in the past.

6) I want a wife who desires me and is willing to pursue me as hard as I pursue her.

7) I want a wife who is a virgin.

I know that I want these things, and I ask God to bring this woman into my life on a regular basis. However, in all of our planning and list-making we often forget one very important detail: we aren’t in control. My life is not my own, it belong to Christ and he can do with this life whatever he desires. God does give us the desires of our heart, but sometimes they don’t look the way we want them to, sometimes he asks us to do insane things, and sometimes he puts us through the ringer before granting those desires. If you don’t believe me, then read Isaiah 19-20, where God makes the prophet walk around naked for three years. Or read Ezekiel, where God makes the prophet lie on his side for a year and a half eating only bread cooked over dung. Or read Jonah, where God makes the prophet go and preach to the people who have oppressed, terrorized, and slaughtered his people for years. Or read Hoshea, where God makes the prophet marry a prostitute and accept children that are most likely not his own. Or read the gospels, where the father commands the son to suffer, die, and pay for sins that are not his own.

We don’t get to control our lives. This is true of everyone, the control that we are looking for is an illusion we create in the hopes of protecting ourselves from fear. However, in the Christian it should be especially true because we actively give up control over our own lives when we choose to follow Christ. Our purpose and highest goal is to glorify him in everything, and that should trump every other desire or goal that we have. Because of this all of my life-goals, all of my desires for a wife, everything that I could list out and say ‘this is what I want’ is negotiable. My will is to be subsumed in Christ, and anyone who thinks that Ezekiel wanted to lie on his side for a year and a half eating dung-bread hasn’t actually read the book. Ezekiel talked God down from making him eat bread cooked over human dung (bargaining with God anyone?), Christ begged God to ‘let this cup pass’ from him. We don’t see these kinds of objections recorded in Isaiah or Hoshea, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the difficulty the prophets had obeying the commands of God.

We must relinquish our need for control in our own lives and in the lives of others and learn to accept the things that God chooses for us. This is the path to true happiness, and this is the path to greater, truer, and more meaningful relationship with God.

Speak the Truth in Love

I haven’t met many people who are particularly good at this. I know people who are good at speaking the truth, but it often doesn’t come across as loving, and I know people who are good at loving, but they don’t generally rise to the challenge of telling people the hard things. I tend to fall into the former category. I’m good at confrontation, good at telling people what is true, but I often have to work at the loving part of it. I’m good at loving people that I like, but then.. that’s generally pretty easy for almost all of us. People that I don’t like, I have to work hard to love them, and I can’t honestly say that I always succeed. However, I do have an excellent example in my pastor. He is a man who can speak the truth in love on a consistent basis.

I’ve found that people who are good at loving others don’t like to speak the truth, because it hurts, and people who are good at speaking the truth don’t like loving others, because it hurts. Something that I see continually throughout Christ’s ministry is the combination of an unending desire to see all men come to him, and an unyielding willingness to let them walk away if they are not ready. I have yet to figure out how to combine these two qualities without wanting to kill myself from the sheer grief and stress that they cause, which (of course) makes my estimation of Christ skyrocket. He was, and is, the almighty God in the flesh, and I can’t live up to that, much as I might like to.

My pastor is one who does an amazing job of speaking the truth in love. Don’t get me wrong, people will still get upset with you if you speak the truth in love, but the difference is that they won’t have an actual reason to get upset with you. We all tend to get frustrated when someone disagrees with our point of view, tells us that we’re in the wrong, or that we can’t have what we want. I know I do. I get frustrated when someone tells me that I can’t have what I want, and when I’m told I’m in the wrong I’ll often argue my point ad nausem. However, eventually, I usually get it. Eventually. If people stick around that long. I suppose that’s one good test of a true friend: are they willing to be your friend when you’re wrong, and they know you’re wrong?

So, a little good news to share: I got into a medical study that is going to pay me a LOT of money (around $2000) for very little work. I’m pretty excited about this because it will actually put me in striking distance of having my credit card completely paid off by next spring (possibly by Christmas if I wind up getting a lot of classes). It’s honestly hard to explain exactly how excited I am by this. I’ve been in debt for a pretty long time, and getting my card paid off won’t get me out of debt (student loans are kicking my tail), but it will get me closer, and it will be very good for me. I’m starting to create (or God is starting to create) noticable change in my life, and it’s not just this. I find that I’ve been happy lately, not just happy about circumstances, but just… joyful. I’ve had moments in which I feel like I can fully understand Plato’s eudaimonia, and that is a wonderful thing.

There is also a young woman of whom I’m rather fond… I’m not really ready to talk about her yet, because there is (at the moment at least) still a very good chance that we’ll wind up being nothing more than friends. I have no idea if she returns my feelings in any way, or if she’s even realized that I have feelings at all, but I suppose I’ll find out eventually. I am doing everything I can to leave this in the hands of God. We’ll see what he decides to do with it.

Reasonable Religion

Several authors have done a wonderful job of defending the rationality of the Christian faith (Alvin Plantinga, N.T. Wright, Francis Schaffer, and C.S. Lewis [even though I’m not really a fan of the last] all come to mind). They have thoroughly defended the historicity of scriptural texts and the rational foundations of theistic belief in general and of Christian belief specifically. However, there is a huge difference between warranted, rational Christianity (i.e. Christian belief that is philosophically and historical defensible) and reasonable Christianity (i.e. Christianity that fits into our ‘normal’ conception of life).

I cannot count how many times someone has told me to ‘be reasonable’ about my faith. By ‘reasonable’ they meant ‘I know that you feel like God is telling you something, but you shouldn’t do it’. People told me this in college when I sold my computer to pay for a missions trip. They told me this when I changed majors, when I decided not to pursue a pastoral position, even though I had a degree in Christian Leadership. They told me this when I quit a job at Walmart to substitute teach, and when I was convinced that God was pushing me towards a 17 year old girl (I decided that I wouldn’t actually pursue a relationship until after she turned 18, but she shot me down regardless… I’ll have to write that story sometime). Each of these decisions has led me into some difficult times, but in each of them following God and allowing him to guide my life has led to significant spiritual growth and has helped me to better understand God. It is easy for us to doubt, to convince ourselves that our reasonable decisions are a better guide to life than God’s will. However, I’ve also made some reasonable decisions, even when God was telling me not to (that’s what led me to Walmart in the first place), and they have never turned out well.

While our faith is absolutely rational and defensible, it is rarely reasonable from a human perspective. If you are ever convinced that God’s will is always going to be the reasonable thing try reading Genesis, or Exodus, Ezekiel, Hoshea, personally, I think my favorite example of the unreasonableness of the Christian faith is the crucifixion. Throughout scripture God asks those who are willing to follow him to do entirely unreasonable things. To sacrifice their own happiness and well-being for his glory. To sacrifice themselves for the good of others, and to trust God in impossible situations. Remember when God told Abraham to get up and leave everything he’d ever known? No idea where he was going, or what he was going to do, just leave. Or when God commanded him to kill his only son, the son of the covenant he’d made with God? Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is an excellent discussion of this.

Ultimately, the greatest argument for a reasonable religion is the pursuit of comfort. The American dream tells us to pursue our own comfort, our own ends, to take care of ourselves first, and that true strength comes from taking what we want. However, scripture tells us something completely different. Scripture tells us to put God first, and then others. To pursue God’s glory rather than our comfort. To leave off our own ends and pursue the ends of the kingdom. Lastly, scripture tells us that God doesn’t value the strength to take what we want, but the weakness to put others first, even when this means allowing them to take advantage of us.

The reasonable, Americanized church often rejects these concepts. It tells us to be hard and forceful, to defend our rights rather than live up to our responsibilities. It tells us to ignore God and do the culturally acceptable thing. To focus on this world instead of the next. All to often we develop the wrong priorities and the church encourages us in this development. So, one of the most fundamentally difficult aspects of Christian living in America is to avoid the trap of easy, reasonable religion that surrounds us, and instead to pursue ‘the upward calling’ of the faith.

Suffering and Weakness

You’re all ridiculous. I hope you know that. I’ve said it before and I’ve no doubt that I’ll say it again: I don’t write anything worth reading. My random thoughts are not far off from a madman’s ravings, which inevitably implies that all of you are following a lunatic. At least I’ve kept my post count above my follower count for a while. I think that means I’m winning, but honestly I’m too tired to be sure right now. However, I do hope that in my insane ramblings I at least keep good company. Peter and Paul are both rather depressing authors of the New Testament at times (many times). Between the two of them we are exhorted (repeatedly) to rejoice in suffering and weakness (Consider 2 Corinthians 12 or 1 Peter 3 if you need examples [though really the entirety of 1 Peter will do]), two things that are fairly anathema to the American way. We don’t rejoice in suffering and weakness. In fact we don’t even approve of suffering and weakness. According to the American Church at large (much like Job’s friends) if you are suffering then you must be a bad Christian, and weakness simply isn’t tolerated.

Suffering is, apparently according to the Gospel of the US, God’s way of telling you that you are a sucky person, and if you weren’t such a sucky person then he would be giving you many and varied blessings like he does to all the non-sucky church-goers. This, of course, flies in the face of scriptural teaching and 2000 years of Christian tradition, but who cares, we’re Americans!

… … …So, I might be in just a little bit of a mood this morning… slightly… I blame it on the fact that I didn’t get any sleep again last night. After a week’s worth of wonderful rest (yes the alliteration is intentional) I had another night of sleepless torment, temptation, and failure. After I’d finally given up on sleep I turn to scripture to find this waiting for me: boast in your weaknesses! Well… I have plenty of weaknesses to boast in. I’m prideful, arrogant, supremely confident in my own intelligence (which is, admittedly, modest at best), lustful, foolish, insecure, and terribly, terribly afraid. Oh, and I tend to be pretty lonely most of the time as well. I generally console myself that it’s because I’m a smart, deep thinker and most people can’t keep up with me (what a crock… did I mention that I’m arrogant? I think I must be pretty hard to be around at times).

My bad mood aside, honestly looking back over the past few months I think one of the major lessons God has been trying to teach me is to find joy in my weaknesses. Paul was a pretty incredible man, and he certainly had a lot to boast about, but in 2 Corinthians 12 he talks about a thorn in the flesh that God had given him to keep him humble. Some scholars argue that this was some physical deformity (which they inevitably attempt to identify as buggy eyes, bowed legs, albino skin or some such), but others connect this thorn in the flesh with his rant Romans 7:14-25 and conclude that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was some issue of sin that presented him a continual and humiliating struggle (of course they also feel the need to identify this, often as a sexual issue, though only Paul’s staunch stand against sexual sins provides any support for this). I tend to side with the latter as I have trouble seeing a physical deformity being of much shame to Paul (given that he had been beaten, stoned, drowned, etc repeatedly I would imagine that he had several deformities). However, for a man of Paul’s stature a struggle with sin (which we already know from Romans 7 he had) would certainly be very humiliating.

We are all weak. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, we all suffer from many and varied weaknesses. As I write this my mind is drawn back to Desperate Housewives, which (as I’ve said before) is a surprisingly good and surprisingly uplifting show. There are two couples  (well, one couple and half of a couple) that, in many ways, exemplify what the church should and should not be respectively. First, Tom and Lynette are two imperfect people who accept one another’s imperfections and choose to continue in love regardless. One of my favorite scenes revolves around this couple. There is a portion of the show in which Lynette is tempted to cheat, and when Tom discovers this he confronts the man who is in the process of seducing her. Tom doesn’t threaten the man (well… much), but instead points out this (I’m paraphrasing here): “Have you thought about what’ll happen if she does slip and spend the night with you? It’ll destroy her. She’ll hate herself. And you think I’ll leave, but I won’t. I won’t go anywhere. I’ll stay right here and love her as hard as she hates herself, and we’ll get through this, because that’s who we are.” Honestly, Tom and Lynette are a fairly good example of the kind of undying, complete, self-sacrificing, gracious, imperfect love that the church could potentially show to one another. None of us are perfect people. None of us are even good people. However, when we recognize our own weaknesses and lovingly accept the fact that others are just as weak, we can show the grace that God has shown us. Does this make the actions that come out of our weakness good? Of course not, but it does mean that sin causes grace to abound.

The second character is Bre Van DeKamp Hodge. Bre is an excellent example of the faux perfection that the church often exhibits. She has her moments of true goodness and goes though some hard things, but generally she is unwilling to accept any weakness in others, even when that same weakness is all to apparent in herself. She does genuinely try to help people, but she is generally unwilling to show either grace or love, and this is a problem. Where Tom and Lynette forgive easily and often (as we should), Bre rarely forgives anything.

Bre seems to assume, as many of us do, that grace equals a lowering of standards, and this isn’t true. My students often tell me that my standards are too high and that I need to lower them. However, as I tell them, this is not going to happen. However, what will happen is the chance (if they seek it) to try again. To rewrite papers, seek advice, improve their abilities to meet my standards, and all of this I am more than happy to do. Similarly, we cannot expect God to lower his standards. It’s simply not going to happen. However, we can expect him to let us try again, and we should be able to expect that of one another as well.

Concerning Signs and Wonders

In my life I have vacillated between rejecting the need for signs in an effort to ‘walk by faith’ and asking God for signs in times of difficulty, fear, and frustration. It’s easy to run too far in either direction and thus ignore the entirety of scripture in favor of only seeing a part. In Matthew 12:38-42 we find a rather famous passage in which Christ rebukes the Jews for asking for signs and wonders. However, many times we fail to ask a very simple question: why? As I drill into my philosophy students, many of the most important questions that we can ask in life are ‘why’ based questions. “Why am I here?” “Why should I believe?” “Why do I want to be happy?” “Why am I unsatisfied?” etc. Many of us focus on asking ‘what’ based questions, but we ignore the ‘why’ based questions on which they rely. In this passage we must ask the question, “Why did Jesus rebuke the people?” The simply answer is, “Because they asked for signs and wonders”, but this answer isn’t entirely correct. Consider Isaiah 7, in which God tells King Ahaz to request a sign from him, and Ahaz refuses. Consider Gideon, who (admittedly out of fear) requests signs from God and is not rebuked. Consider the multitude of signs that God provides throughout the scriptures, from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the parting of the Red Sea, water from the stone, the signs of the prophets, the miracles of Christ, all the way down to the miraculous signs done through the apostles. To say that God is ‘against signs and wonders’ ignores almost the entirety of scripture for the sake of a theological perspective that relies on a single verse. So, why does Christ rebuke the people?

A more fundamental question might be why does God give signs in the first place? The answer to this question is three-fold: 1) God gives signs to show his character (i.e. the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of water from a stone, the execution of Ananias and Sapphira), 2) God gives signs to encourage faithful response (i.e. the signs given to Gideon, the healing of the Lame man by Peter, etc), and 3) God gives signs to guide his people on the proper path (i.e. the pillar of fire and smoke, the signs of the prophets, etc). The miracles of God serve his purposes first and foremost. Through them he displays his glory, love, mercy, and justice, and by them he leads his people where he wants them to go.

Miraculous signs do not exist from the pleasure of man, and that is what the Jews were asking for in Matthew 12. These Jews did not want to believe in Christ, they didn’t intend to follow him, they were not seeking a greater understanding of God, and they did not desire to be shown a true path. Instead, they wanted to see something cool, which is often the by-word of our own culture. There is a vast difference between seeking a sign so as to more thoroughly understand God, and seeking a sign that titillates the mind. There is also a difference between seeking a sign because you doubt the power and authority of God (not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly a sign of weakened faith), and seeking a sign because you do not trust yourself to correctly discern the will of God.

A great example here is Hand. You might remember that I mentioned her in some posts a while back (I’m not going to go find them and link them, you can find them yourself). Hand was a young woman that I was attracted to, but that I had doubts about. I asked God for guidance, but I know myself. I have, several times, tricked myself into believing that God has led me to pursue whom I wanted to pursue, regardless of God’s desire. So, I asked God for a sign, a very specific sign, not because I doubted him, but because I doubted myself and my own ability to clearly listen to him in this particular situation.

This brings up another issue with signs. A sign is always specific. It is very easy to pull Homer Simpson’s trick and pray, “God, if you want me to eat this donut then do absolutely nothing.” While I have no doubt that God could easily smite a person with lightning, I also believe that God is willing to allow us to wallow in our own stupidity and self-will. God generally doesn’t divinely stop us from making stupid decisions (though sometimes he might protect us in those decisions). If you want a sign from God, make it specific, and make it antithetical to your self-will. Going back to my example with Hand, I knew what wanted. So, I asked God for a specific sign showing me to pursue my desire. I did not ask him for a non-specific sign showing me not to pursue my desire. The latter would be easy to ignore while the former is very difficult to ignore.

That being said, signs and wonders aren’t the core of our faith, and they shouldn’t be the core of our faith. They are a part of the Christian faith, but they are a small part at best, useful for specific circumstances. If your faith relies on signs and wonders, then take some time to actually get to know God, instead of looking for miracles.

The Hard Road

Church tonight was good. It had me thinking about a lot of different things. I think I might get two or three blog posts out of the thoughts that were running through my head tonight (if I can remember them that is). However, as I sat in church today I thought back to some of the lessons that I’ve learned in my life, a number of them learned through this very church, and many more learned in other ways. My entire life I’ve had to learn things the hard way. I’m a stubborn bastard an awful lot of the time, and it makes everything take that much longer. Sometimes I wonder why God made me this way. Honestly, thinking back, if there was any one thing that I could change about myself, it would be this need to learn things the hard way.

I’d like to say that I learn my lessons better, or that they stick with me longer, but honestly I’m really not sure this is true. There are a few lessons that I’ll never forget (generally the hardest ones), but many that I’ve had to learn multiple times. All in all, I’ve had a lot of lessons that I probably shouldn’t have needed, and this habit of always learning things the hard way has resulted in a lot of pain in my life. Not to say that this pain hasn’t lead to good things, personal growth, etc. However, if there was anything that I could change about myself, it would be this. I would love to be able to learn my lessons the easy way, without the incredible pain that goes with doing everything the hard way. I would thoroughly enjoy being less stubborn, less prideful, and more teachable. It’s something that I’ve been working on for years, and often failing at, and I’m still trying to be less stubborn and more teachable.

Honestly, I’m not really sure that I have much more to say in this post. I started it with every intention of writing something deep and meaningful about learning things the hard way, and how pride causes a lot of pain, which is entirely true. However, there isn’t a whole lot more that needs to be said than that. I’ve made some giant mistakes, and I’ve learned valuable lessons from them, and I always say that I wouldn’t change anything about my life. I understand that God made me the way he did for a reason, and I know that he’s working his will in me. I know that this is something that he is using to make me a better person… still, sometimes I wish he didn’t have to. I wish he had made me… perfect. Actually reading this I realize how ridiculous it sounds. We are all fallen people, all in need of a savior, and all in need of a lot of work towards sanctification. Nonetheless, sometimes I’d like all of this to be a lot easier, and I feel like if God had made me a little bit different it might have been.

Bovary Moments Part 2

So, a few days ago I mentioned a novel that I’ve been listening to as a book on tape (full disclosure here) called Madame Bovary. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed the book. To be completely honest, it’s pretty much infuriating! The entire novel revolves around an incredibly selfish woman and the pain that she causes to everyone around her. Emma, Madam Bovary, is an adulteress and wastrel who spends her husband’s money on her lovers until there is no money left to spend, and then continues spending until her family is ruined, at which point she commits suicide. She is convinced of her own worth, flaky, flighty, and constantly plays the victim while the real victim of the novel, her husband Charles, blissfully goes about his days in apparent ignorance. I haven’t quite finished the novel yet, so I don’t know if it will be revealed that Charles was simply a trusting victim or if he knew of his wife’s indiscretions and chose to love her anyway. I want to identify with Charles. He’s a good man, an honest man, and a hard worker. I want to see Charles in myself, and to see Emma in the people around me. The truth is often the other way around.

I’ve been doing fairly well with my struggles lately. I’m generally satisfied with my life, though T’Amber shot me down when I finally asked her out yesterday. I’m planning to ask a couple more times. In this, I’m going to go by the sayings ‘Third Times the Charm’ and ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’. She was very nice about shooting me down, and I don’t figure a couple more polite invitations are likely to hurt anything. I’ve been doing fairly well in my internet struggles as well. I’ve wrestled with the desire to look at pornography, but I haven’t fallen much lately, and I’m very happy about that. I did just break down and pay for a year-long membership to eHarmony… it was a good sale price… still, I have a feeling I’m going to regret that. Nonetheless, I’ve been doing well (Happify has helped with that some, I suggest checking it out). Nonetheless, no matter how well I do, I am not Charles.

I am all too often fickle. I like T’Amber and I plan to try again, but then there’s also a very pretty young lady who just started taking Karate at the school at which I help teach Aikido. I have a feeling that one of my other students might try to set us up, and I am in no way opposed to this. Then I still have to ask Sally to lunch, although I’ve recently found out that she’s not available in the first place, which made me indescribably happy.

More than that, I’m not only fickle, I’m downright selfish. I want to be loved, often (I was going to write sometimes here… but that wouldn’t really be honest) more than I want to love others. I want to be desired as much as Madame Bovary does, and I want to play the victim. I always like to have someone to blame when something goes wrong. I know that I should take responsibility for my actions, but all to often I don’t. In short, I am just as selfish a man as Bovary is a woman. The thing is, I think this is true of all of us. We all want… we all desire… we all need… often we don’t even know what we want/desire/need. We are listless, indecisive, and ultimately we don’t have the time or the energy to care about anyone else. It’s not a good thing. In fact, this is exactly what God is trying to fix through the process of sanctification.

However, as I’ve said many times, sanctification is a process. I don’t get there overnight. In fact, I won’t get there until I’m dead. Until then I keep trying to be better, and often I keep failing, and God keeps forgiving.

I’ve also been reading The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (Lawrence of the Resurrection if you want to look him up) lately, and there is a huge difference between the life to which Brother Lawrence exhorts us, and the life that Gustave Flaubert displays. Lawrence exhorts us to a life of consistent worship, a life filled with the presence, the wonder, the beauty, and the satisfaction of God. Flaubert displays a life without any of those things. A life in constant quest for beauty, wonder, and love. A life in which satisfaction is an undreamable dream (I know I stole that, but I can’t remember where).

I am struck by just how much Emma had, and still her life was empty, compared with how little Lawrence  had (he was a lay brother and kitchen worker in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, a man of absolutely no importance). None the less Lawrence espouses a complete satisfaction with life that Bovary never considers a possibility. I have written before that I am currently searching for eudaimonia. The thing is, eudaimonia does not lie in financial security, in things (duh), in the respect and admiration of those around me, in knowledge or wisdom, or in the bosom of a beautiful woman. Eudaimonia is something that I can only reach by the daily practice of walking in God’s presence. Something that I’m still fairly poor at. Nonetheless, on with the process I march.