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.

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A Life of Worship

It seems that I have a lot more to say when I’m struggling with things than I do when I’m not struggling. Honestly, I don’t suppose that should really surprise anyone. I think we all tend to have more to say when we are struggling with God. The issues in our lives tend to be more evident when God makes them undeniably clear to us. In turn, this obviously means that we pay more attention to them, and that we have more to say about them. All to often I (we) have little to say when life is good. The reason for this is, I think, very simple. In the church today there is a dearth of true worship in the church. I have much to say when I am struggling with God because my struggles are at the forefront of my mind. I am frustrated with God, frustrated with myself, and I want everything to be better. However, when things are better I am not thankful. E.M. Bounds illustrates the difference between thankfulness and gratitude in his book The Essentials of Prayer. Bounds argues that gratitude is inward focused and negatively associated (i.e. not that gratitude is a negative or bad thing, but in association with action gratitude, being focused inward, is negatively focused because it does not produce action). Thankfulness, Bounds argued, is outwardly focused and positively associated (i.e. again, towards action: that thankfulness, being outwardly focused, produces action). I find that I agree with him in this, and I think that both are necessary for a life of true worship.

Obviously one may demonstrate thankfulness without being grateful. This happens quite often when we utter words of thanks to God or to others, even though we are inwardly bitter, angry, or disappointed. This is, of course, hypocritical (i.e. hupokrites refered to an actor, so a hypocrite is literally one who acts), but we are often hypocritical in our lives without paying much attention or care to our hypocrisy (this is something that has strongly disabused younger generations [who value genuineness greatly] from the mainstream church). So, we go through the motions of thankfulness with no true spirit of gratitude. I have found, in my own life, that this often leads to even deeper feelings of disappointment and resentment. I have, many times, felt truly grateful for the trials and struggles that God has put me through. However, I have also (probably more often) been thankful out of a sense of obligation. I suppose Kant would argue that acting on this sense of obligation, especially when my feelings ran counter to it, was the most truly good action. However, while I have great respect of the man, this is one place where I think that I profoundly disagree with Kant.

Sacrificial love is, in my opinion, a beautiful and very important thing. However, love that is truly sacrificial is gracious and grateful as well. It is not resentful, which is what I find my hypocritical thankfulness often turning towards. To act out of obligation is good as long as the action is truly genuine as well. I may thank God for trials because I am obligated to do so, and still feel truly grateful for those trials. However, if I give obligatory thanks in bitterness and resentment, I cannot find the wherewithal to call this ‘good’. Thus, I must argue that this kind of hypocritical thankfulness is not good.

However, one may also clearly be grateful without being thankful. I have often found myself in this place: filled with a feeling of grateful contentment, but so focused on my own internal pleasures that the outward exercise of thankfulness disappears. St. Teresa of Avila warned of this in The Mansions. St. Teresa claimed that she had known several sisters (she was a nun and so her writings were generally directed towards the sisters) who became so overwhelmed by the internal pleasures of God’s gracious love that they ceased all activities. She called this a deathly illness (though it isn’t entirely clear if she meant physically or spiritually) and called on the ranking sisters to keep watch on nuns who showed signs of this malady. St. Teresa claimed that this cessation of outward activity was a sign of spiritual weakness that would inevitably delay or even halt the spiritual growth of the sisters so affected.

I have to admit that I have seen this in my own life. There have been times when I hoarded God’s love and compassion, keeping it to myself and enjoying my time with God without letting anyone else benefit. When my spiritual life is turned entirely inwards it doesn’t stop being real, but it stops being prosperous. When we turn our affections entirely inward then, as Paul said to the Corinthians, we are edified, but the body is not. However, when we keep our holy affections balanced, with a strong inward life of spiritual gratitude that spills over into an outward life of thanksgiving and praise, then we edify not only ourselves, but the body as a whole. This is, I think, the best life that I could hope for, and I hope that it is the path that I am now on.

Humbled Like Christ

I’ve always loved the beginning of the second chapter of Philippians. Christ humbled himself for us because, though he was equal with God (i.e. he was a co-equal member of the Godhead, of which no member has primacy), he did not view that equality as a thing to be taken, but instead he gave it up to become a man. Not only did he become a man, but he became a poor carpenter’s son who, thirty-three years later, was crucified by the Romans to pacify the Jewish religious aristocracy. This picture of complete humility, from all-powerful creator of the cosmos to condemned man, is the ultimate example of Paul’s charge in the same chapter to view others as higher than ourselves, and of his charge in Romans to view ourselves with right minds. Christ, though he was the second person of the living God, did not view himself so highly that he refrained from becoming a man that would be shamefully hung on a cross (for in Jewish culture this was a shameful way to die). Why then do I think so highly of myself that I believe others should gather around my feet to be taught, or that women should love me, or that I am, in any way, deserving of respect or love.

Today we are enamored of the concept of human rights. I blame this largely on the enlightenment, culminating in the Declaration of Independence – the first wholesale statement of rights rather than responsibilities. We focus on what we deserve as individuals: I should be loved, I should be respected, I should be given work, I should be happy, I should be…, I should…, I…, I…, I…. In this obsession with selfishness we lose one of the most fundamental aspects of the Christian faith: life is not about me. If Christ can put aside his rights as the creator of all things and subject himself willingly to torment and execution, then can’t I put aside a few of my rights? I’ve been up all night, vacillating between prayer, watching Lindsey Stirling videos (the young lady I’ve mentioned introduced her to me in a facebook conversation last night), and looking at porn. In this case, two of the three have the same impetus: I am afraid. I am afraid of getting hurt, afraid that putting myself out there will lead me to another heartbreak, and all God keeps saying is to ‘trust him’, which generally isn’t helpful when I want emotional reassurance. So, after a night’s worth of struggle, sin, repentance, and pleading, my devotions this morning were Philippians 2.

Christ, in all his deific glory, found himself worthy to be born as a man and die a painful and humiliating death so that God could be glorified through our salvation. And here I am gnashing my teeth over the prospect of getting my heart broken again. Honestly, it really is incredibly ridiculous. If it is God’s will that my heart be broken again, and I truly hope that it isn’t, then I should rejoice in that as it glorifies him, and he will use it in my life to make me better. This is a part of what it means to be humbled. To give myself entirely over to the calling of God in my life, no matter what that calling might be, and allow him to shape me as he wills.

So, now (finally… you’d think I’d catch on sooner) I find myself praying that God give me peace, whatever he leads me to. Instead of begging him for someone’s love, or pleading with him to protect my heart, or raging at him for putting it in danger yet again, or fleeing into sinful comforts, I am simply asking for his peace through everything. The truth is that I hate the beginning of things when it isn’t clear which way a relationship will go. I want to be in a comfortable, committed relationship that is going to turn into marriage, and I’d honestly rather skip the ‘getting to know you’ phase entirely. However, in this also, I will ask for peace.

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.

Meaningless Thoughts

The last few days have been pretty awesome. Not because of anything particular that has happened, but because of where my focus has been. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of days about the grace that God has given to me. Not just forgiveness for things in my past, though there is certainly a lot of that, but the opportunities that he’s given me to become a better person, to live well and joyfully, and to pursue him with everything that I am. Honestly, I don’t really have a whole lot to say right now. I have spent the last two days exceptionally thankful, and I think that being thankful is an important part of the Christian walk that we often allow to drift to the wayside in the pursuit of more important things.

It’s easy to go to God when things are bad, and it’s often hard to find things to be thankful for when times are hard. When times are good it’s easy to forget about God. I’m constantly amazed at the number of unsuccessful people I meet who excuse themselves with comments about bad luck, and never getting opportunities, and to some degree these are true. Opportunity is certainly not equal in our country, and we really shouldn’t pretend that it is. However, I am also amazed at the number of successful people who credit their success to their own abilities, insight, and perseverance. Rarely have I met an unsuccessful person who credited their own choices for their current problems, and rarely have I met a successful person who credited luck, chance, or God’s providence for their situation. It seems that unsuccessful people all have bad luck, and successful people are all insanely talented.

This isn’t true, of course. There are plenty of successful people who owe their success entirely to luck (or God), and there are plenty of unsuccessful people who made bad choices in life. Of course, there are also incredibly talented people who’ve never been given a chance, and people who built their success thorough trial, sweat, and tears. That being said, we like to take credit for success, and avoid credit for failure. Some of this, I think, is inherent in humanity. Some of it is due to a culture that judges us on what we have instead of who we are. However, regardless of the reason, we desperately need to take responsibility for our failures, and thank God for our successes. We also need to trust his providence in everything. If God truly is sovereign, then he does have a plan for this world, and for us.

Of course, we could argue for a deistic God who is sovereign, but just doesn’t care what happens to us, but this (in my opinion) would not be the God of the scriptures. We could also argue for an intellectually acceptable God who operates within, and is governed by, natural law (i.e. the laws of physics, chemistry, etc), but again, I don’t think this is the God of the scriptures. The God of the scriptures is both sovereign and caring. He is both transcendent and immanent. He stands above natural law, apparently outside of time, and his word serves as the fulcrum upon which all things turn. This God is not governed by the rules, he is the creator of the rules. He cares deeply for his creation, and especially for mankind, but he is also coldly willing to sacrifice millions to make a point (just look at the conquests of Israel and Judah). He is both loving and just, caring and wrathful, merciful and jealous. That is to say that, ultimately, God is an enigma.

However, this doesn’t mean that we should give up, throw up our hands, and simply say, “well, we’ll never figure it out, so why try?” There are many questions in the Christian faith that can’t be answered, and many men have gone astray in their instance that there must be an answer. However, this doesn’t mean that we stop asking those questions, that we stop considering them, discussing them, mulling over them, or attempting to understand the complexity that is God and his relationship with man. This is something that is worth doing. It always has been, and it always will be, and the greatest men of the faith wrestled with these questions. Certainly they are worth our time.

Emptiness is What I Long For…

I don’t know how many of you remember the song “Holiness” by Micah Stampley (as far as I can tell, though I found websites attributing the song to three different people). Honestly, I had to look it up because all I could remember was the first line of two verses. This isn’t a bad song, holiness and righteousness are things that we should long for, and they are things that we should pursue. God commands us to Holiness and to Righteousness, and this is what sanctification is all about. However, when I was in college we used to use this song to mock one another horrendously. Whenever someone was struggling, frustrated, down in the dumps, the lyrics of the song were replaced with whatever that person was feelings at the time. We would sing out ‘bitterness, bitterness is what I long for’ or ‘lustfulness, lustfulness is what I long for’, and we weren’t entirely being mocking. A part of the reason for this was to remind one another of where we should be. Clearly bitterness and lustfulness are not what God wants from me, and they are not what I should be pursuing. Nonetheless, we often do. In our human hearts we often mistake bitterness for righteous anger, lust for love, pleasure for joy, etc and we convince ourselves that this is the way that we should feel. We convince ourselves that this is a good thing, even though it is clear to everyone around us that it isn’t.

Last night I was at a get together with a large number of very young people. There were a few people who were my age, but most of the attendees were between eighteen and twenty-one. Part of the evening (a large part actually as there were a lot of people) was a kind of popcorn sharing of meaningful events over the summer. We were asked to share what God has been doing in our lives, and it quickly turned into people being chosen to share by others. Honestly, I spent most of the night thinking about what I might say, and as it ended I’m really not sure whether I would have said that I didn’t have to share or that I didn’t get to share. Honestly, and I hope my journal reflects this, God has done a lot over my summer. Certainly too much to share in a short tidbit.

God tends to use the summers in my life to do work on me, whether I want him to or not. I was during the summer that I started learning how to trust him. It was during the summer that I let go of my anger. It was during the summer before I converted that the Holy Spirit started drawing me himself and out of the sins that I was so comfortable with. The summer has always been a special time for me, and I honestly don’t think that’s likely to change any time soon. This summer one of the things that God has taught me is that I need to empty myself. I need to let go of my pride, my self-esteem, my self-importance, my desires, my hopes, my longing, and give them all to him. I’ve let go of some of these, but certainly not all of them. Pride is probably the most significant thing I need to let go of right now. It consistently gets in the way of following God and obeying him. Whether I’m too prideful to go to a Sunday school class, too prideful to ask out a girl, too prideful to accept being second best, too prideful to see the qualities of others… ultimately, something that God has shown me this summer is that I am often too prideful to obey. I can think of two major fights that I had with God over the past three months that were based entirely on my pride.

So, this is my song for the moment: Emptiness is what I long for. I want to be empty of myself and filled with the Holy Spirit. Somehow, I have a feeling that’s going to hurt.

Ethics, Self Image, Family, and Foundations

Teaching ethics I am often confronted with the fact that I am a horrible person. This is not to say that I am completely without the traditional virtues. I have a modicum of wisdom (though I’m always amazed when people actually listen to me), some small measure of courage, a fair amount of patience, and a little self-control. However, I am not an excellent leader, nor am I a man of impeachable moral character, or incredible internal strength. I am certainly no sage, though I do always find myself drawn to the Chinese sages (…I suppose that’s pretty obvious by now). I’m not a particularly skillful leader, and all to often I allow exhaustion to impede my ability to live up to my responsibilities. I care about people, but far too often I don’t stop to help when I could. I try to do what’s right, except when it’s too hard and then I’m all too happy not to. I want to be a good person, but when not living up to that standard seems easier, more fun, or more profitable I’m not unlikely to chuck my morals out the window.

Scripture tells us to have a right view of ourselves, but it also tells us to view others as better/higher/more worthy than ourselves. I struggle with the latter. I want to be the best, to be the one who’s admired, chosen, looked up to, lauded… I want to be important, and I’m still struggling with the fact that I am, always will be, and always should be nothing. If I am to allow God to live in me, to work his will through my life, to act through me in the lives of others, then I desperately need to get over myself and step aside. I think that the man who’s funeral I attended yesterday was very good at this. He was good at being nothing, at getting out of the way and letting God work. I find that I am thoroughly not good at this. I am good at getting in God’s way. Forcing him to move me out of the way before he can do anything that he wants done. I am good at causing problems. I wish I was better at living for him.

This afternoon I messaged a friend of mine (actually the mother of my young friend at Church) to ask if I could take her children to a movie sometime. I love her kids, and I have always wanted a family. The older I get, the less likely that seems. Honestly, it might just be a result of some melancholy left over from the funeral yesterday, but at the moment I feel as though it will never happen. Even if I do someday find a wife, the chances that she’ll be young enough to easily have children is unlikely (though Sarah did have Isaac in her 90s). I wanted to cry out to this woman: ‘Let me borrow your family! Just every now and then! Please, help me to feel less crushingly lonely!’ Of course, I didn’t. I have a feeling that this would come across as creepy and desperate. Of course, her children aren’t the answer to my loneliness. That is, in itself, a ridiculous notion. I love both of her children, and I want to spend time with them, but time with them (or with anyone else) is a temporary fix for an emptiness that only God can fill.

And that is my foundation. Whether I have a family or not. Whether I am humble or not. Whether I am a good person or not. Whether I spend time with her kids or not. Regardless of any of this, it is God in which my joy lies. It is him who fills my emptiness. Him who dries my tears. Him who heals my pain. God is , and must be, the foundation of my life because there is nothing else that can serve that purpose. This doesn’t mean that I don’t desire, but in the midst of my desires, in the midst of loneliness, of despair, of emotional turmoil and pain, I can know that tomorrow will be a new day that will bring with it new joys and new treasures. God always provides, and this doesn’t simply mean that he provides for our physical necessities. God’s provision is ever sufficient for the whole being of man. In this too I know that he will provide.