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.

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Thanksgiving Part 1

So, this has been a little bit of a frustrating weekend, and before I start into my post proper there’s something that I need to put down, just to get it out of my head. I met a young woman last week, lovely lady and clearly intelligent. This was the second time that I’d met her, but the first time that I really spent significant time talking with her. After some excellent conversation about the sociological messages in Ender’s Game and Keynesian Economics, I asked her if she’d like to get dinner with me, and she said that she would very much enjoy that. I ran into her again the next day, though not for long, and on Saturday I called her to figure out a time to get dinner. I caught her at work, and she asked if she could call me back. She never did. I texted her later that night, just in case she’d been waiting for me to call her. No response. I called her again this evening, and she didn’t pick up. If I’m going to be completely truthful, which is my goal here, this young woman has lost most all of my respect, and it’s going to take a truly excellent excuse to get it back.

Now, it’s entirely possible that she’s lost her phone somewhere and is panicking about not being able to get in touch with me. However, I can’t say that I expect this. I’ve mentioned before that women have, quite often, given me the ‘yes means no’ treatment, and I have no doubt that I’m not the only male that this has happened to. Honestly, this is, in part at least, what leads me to the general conclusion that there are no honest women. Even the best women pull this kind of stuff, and it just leaves me with the impression that ‘honesty’ as an actual concept has no meaning to the female mind. As far as I can tell, women in general lie by rote. They don’t even consider it lying. I can remember, when I was in college, girls telling each other that ‘when a guy who isn’t that interesting or attractive asks you out, just say yes and then give him the phone number for the campus police’. Apparently this was funny, but honestly I just find the incredible lack of honesty and compassion appalling.

That being said, I told flowergirl this morning that we are to be thankful for everything that happens in our lives. We thank God for the wonderful, pleasant, nice things (of course, that’s easy), but we also thank God for the tears, the lies, and the hurts that are a part of everyday life. This is a part of trusting God. As I’ve said before, if I only trust God to do the things that I want him to do, then I’m not really trusting him. I’m trusting myself. Real trust begins when God starts doing things that we don’t understand, or that we don’t want, and real trust is thankful for those things: not just after I understand what they were leading to, but during the trials themselves. Real trust in God thanks him for this girl who led me on a wild goose chase. Real trust thanks him for the terror I feel every time I look at taking the next step towards applying to Southeastern. Real trust thanks God when I don’t have the money to pay my electric bill (I do right now, just an example… I’ve been there in the past though).

My point here is that when we really trust God, then we thank him for everything that he allows in our lives precisely because we trust him. We know that ‘God uses all things for good for those who are called according to his purpose… because they are predestined to be conformed to the image of his son’ (Romans 8:28-29… I’ve paraphrased a bit). The goal of sanctification is Christlikeness, and Christlikeness does not come easily. It doesn’t come through comfort and luxury, and it doesn’t generally look like a malibu sunrise (either the drink or the place). Honestly, most of the time it looks a little bit more like Sarajevo during the civil war. It’s rough, painful, dangerous, and generally doesn’t make any sense. That’s good. That’s where we’re supposed to be. So, let’s thank God for it.

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.

Plato, Jesus, and Nice Guys Everywhere

Nice guys finish last. It’s a cliche for a reason, and in my experience it’s very true. Honestly, I have yet to date a woman who honestly wanted to be with a nice guy. I know lots of women who say they want a nice guy. Who say they want to be treated well, cared for, etc, etc, etc. However, show them a nice guy who will do all of those things and they’re gone within a month or two. Jobs often go to the people who are willing to be underhanded to get them. Money goes to the people who don’t care about others. Suffice it to say that our culture isn’t particularly kind to nice guys unless they also happen to be incredibly rich or incredibly handsome.

Of course, part of this is because there are a lot of people out there who put on the guise of a nice guy when they really aren’t particularly nice at all. Some of them are trying to be kind and caring, but are failing. Honestly, in the world we live in this is pretty understandable, not ok, but understandable. Some people pretend to be a nice guy, but actually have no intention of being nice. They use this guise to find victims for whatever their particular version of cruelty might be. Some of them use their disguise to lure women into bed, some of them use it to advance their careers, some of them use it to trick people out of money. Then there are people who actually are nice guys, some of the time, until something happens and they pull a Jekel and Hyde. Ultimately, I’m not convinced that anyone is just a nice guy. We all have issues, problems, struggles, insecurities, etc. We all have things that people will, and probably should, run away from… unless they’re willing to love us. Last week I wrote about about the nice guy with a chip on his shoulder (a.k.a. me). The post was then used in someone else’s post about how it’s pointless to be a nice guy in this world and we should all strive not to be nice guys.

Nice guys get a bad rap. They are often seen as weak or pathetic, clingy, needy, false-faced, and fake. The general perception seems to be that if a nice guy isn’t perfect in every way then he isn’t really a nice guy, he’s just a bastard waiting to happen. As I write this I’m looking at the ‘related content’ page and of the many posts there are exactly three that have anything positive to say about nice guys. That being said, honestly most of these posts (even one of the ones about how nice guys are good) don’t seem to have a particularly clear idea of what makes a nice guy. I know many other nice guys, like myself, have often been lost when trying to figure out what a nice guy actually is, and the standard often seems pointless (because no one seems to want them) or hopeless (because it’s unreachable). So, what does it mean to be a nice guy?

Both Christ and Plato (two very important thinkers, even if you don’t believe that Jesus was the incarnation of the second person of the Godhead) spoke of the privilege of the virtuous. In a world where the powerful, the cunning, and the ruthless are the ones most likely to succeed in most forums, both of these men called us to be better. To put aside the world’s definition of success and seek something higher. Christ called us to abandon the pleasures of this world and find insurpassable joy in him. Plato called us to pursue virtue before everything else and seek eudaimonia (or human fulfillment or flourishing). Neither of them promised that the person who did this would receive wealth, gorgeous women, or worldly success. However, both of them promised to lead their followers to joy despite the lack of these things.

This is the key. This is what being a nice guy really means. The nice guy is the guy who doesn’t need all the trappings of success to be satisfied. He is the guy who can meet with tragedy or triumph and treat them both the same. He is the guy who will put you first, not because he’s trying to get something, but because he doesn’t need to be first. Does this mean that he’ll be perfect? Of course not, none of us are, but it means that he’s trying. That everyday he’s trying to be better, to be virtuous, and to put other people before himself. It doesn’t mean that he’ll never be hurtful, but it does mean that he’ll apologize when he is. It doesn’t mean that he’ll never get angry, but it does mean that he’ll handle it as well as he can. It doesn’t mean that he’ll never get hurt, but it does mean that when he is hurt he’ll give the one who hurt him the chance to explain. Ultimately, being a nice guy means being a guy who honestly cares about others. Who is willing to pursue virtue in his life, and inspires virtue in the lives of others. The nice guy is the guy that may not be particularly noticeable, but who is there when you need him.

The thing is, it’s easy to walk away from him. When the nice guy gets rejected he doesn’t get angry and throw things, instead he gives a smile and a hug, and tells you that it’s okay. It’s easy to say no to him, because you can be confident that he won’t hate you afterwards. It’s easy to hurt him because he’ll be okay. It’s easy to forget about him because he’s not loud and obnoxious, telling you everything that you need to do to make him happy.

This doesn’t mean that he’s weak, or that he doesn’t need your attention. It means that he’s willing to put the needs of others before his own needs. If you find this guy, you should do the same. Ask him what he wants and what he needs from you. Show him that you care about him. Take the time and make the effort to take care of him as much as he takes care of you, and when you find his flaws don’t write him off. Instead love his flaws in the same way that he’s loved yours.

I can’t honestly say that I’ve always been this guy. There are times when I’ve been needy, clingy, possessive, angry, frustrated, etc. There are times when I’ve been hurt and unwilling to forgive, and there are times when I’ve been angry and not handled it particularly well. That being said, this is the guy that I’m trying to be, that I want to be, and I hope to find a woman who will help me become this guy, even as I help her become the woman that she wants to be.

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.

What Are You Looking Forward To?

I’ve been trying to keep this question on my mind lately. It’s a good question to consider on a regular basis. However, it’s not always an easy question to answer. I’ve had times in which there wasn’t anything that I was looking forward to. I was just existing, waiting to die, and often during those times rather hoping that death would catch up with me fairly soon. It’s easy to lose track of the things that you might have to look forward to, and it’s easy to forget that there is something to look forward to. Sometimes it’s difficult to think of anything to look forward to. I look into the future and see wave after wave of sameness. The same struggles, the same pains, the same frustrations, and the same lack of answers, and in those times trying to maintain hope is more painful than just being contentedly miserable.

So, this is my question for you today: what are you looking forward to?

My answer: I’m looking forward to a coffee date that I have tomorrow, and I’m hoping that it goes well. I’m looking forward to filling out a seminary application next month, and I’m hoping that the timing is right and it is finally God’s will for me to go back to school. I’m looking forward to getting some miniatures painted and playing a couple of very fun new games with friends. I’m looking forward to the new Thor movie and I’m hoping that it’s as good as it looks. I’m looking forward to my bible study this week, and I’m hoping that we get to really delve into 1st Peter. I’m looking forward to feeling better, and I’m hoping that I don’t need to go to a doctor. I’m looking forward to my Aikido-Jujitsu class this afternoon. I’m looking forward to getting some writing done tomorrow, and I’m hoping that my muse sees fit to fill me with creativity. I’m looking forward to getting into Isaiah again tomorrow, and I’m really enjoying the commentary that I’m working my way through. I’m looking forward to seeing my family next month, and meeting my new nephew, and I’m hoping that I have the chance to get together with a friend at the same time. I’m looking forward to meeting the right woman someday, and I’m hoping that it’s soon. I’m looking forward to publishing a second book, and I’m hoping that I have the energy to work on it consistently.

I think I’m done listing things for now. Honestly, I had to wrack my brain for some of those. This probably isn’t an exhaustive list of the things I’m looking forward to. There’s a new Riddick movie coming out, for instance. However, it is a fairly thorough list of the important things. However, there is one thing that I left off of the list intentionally. Mostly because I think it needs to be separate, and because I want to talk about it a little bit: I’m looking forward to spending each day with God.

It is important to keep in mind the things that you are looking forward to. It’s important to be able to look at the future and be excited, instead of incensed, terrified, or hopeless. However, none of those things are going to fulfill me. None of them is going to bring me eudaimonia. While they are all good things, and all things that I am sincerely looking forward to and excited about, they are just things. They are events, experiences, etc some of which bear more importance than others, and some of which aren’t really important at all. However, none of them compares with actively spending time with God, and this is something that I should always be looking forward to. I can’t say that I always am, but I always should be.

Spending each day with God is something that will complete me. It is something that will bring me complete joy. It would be easy to say: ‘when you’re listing the things you’re looking forward to, don’t forget time with God’, but it would also be hypocritical and legalistic. Simply including God in a list of things I’m looking forward to doesn’t mean that I am actually seeking him or spending time with him. Christ told us to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all to often we think this means that God should be at the top of our list, the first thing we do in the day, or the word that comes out of our mouths most often. None of these is a bad things, but it is the quest of the heart that matters. I can easily make sure to always include time with God on a list of things that are important to me, but it is significantly harder to actually spend every day with him. The former requires a little mental effort while the latter requires a continual adjustment of perspective and priorities. So, what are you looking forward to?