03 January 2019

4 New Year's Resolutions I Didn't Make

I don't make New Year's resolutions.

There's good reason for this. People make the same New Year's resolutions year after year. If they actually kept them, the world would be full of skinny millionaires with immaculate houses living life to the fullest... amiright?

Here are a few common New Year's Resolutions that I absolutely, positively refuse to burden myself with:

1. Lose weight. There's no need to try to do the impossible, right? Especially when I still have Christmas chocolate mints from Trader Joe's lurking about. (Just kidding... sort of.)

2. Get organized. There's no such thing as "getting organized", in spite of what the home organization gurus tell you. The process of living in a space day in and day out means you're using your stuff. Using your stuff means it gets out of order, i.e., disorganized. Kind of like how you can't brush your teeth once and for all because it's something you're going to have to do over and over again.

(Why, yes, the spare room in my house is a mess right now. Why do you ask?)

3. Go to bed earlier. My body gets tired when it gets tired, and for as long as I can remember that's usually somewhere between eleven and midnight. It simply won't hear of being forced into bed earlier, and if it is, it will stubbornly remain awake until the time I'm used to going to bed. Sometimes it'll stay awake even later, just to be spiteful.

4. Keep a gratitude journal. All the women I know agree that this is a lovely idea, and none of us actually do it. (And it's always women -- men don't give a darn about gratitude journaling. Anybody else notice that?) For me, gratitude journals turn into obligation and guilt journals after only a day or two. I either end up writing silly stuff ("I'm thankful for Ziploc bags that have the little plastic zipper instead of the lines that you have to pinch together") or stuff that I'm not grateful for but know I should be ("I'm thankful my parking ticket was only fifty dollars instead of a hundred", etc.). Then I feel bad because I'm not really grateful. Somewhere around that time, I abandon the exercise altogether.

Anyway. Even so, I do believe in self-improvement, so here's what I'm doing differently this year. These aren't resolutions, exactly, because I'm not expecting to do them perfectly -- just trying to do them more often than not.

1. Get outside more. I'm solar-powered. Blame California, where the sun is always shining and it's always warm and never humid... sigh. Bad things happen when I'm cooped up indoors for too long.

2. Eat less sugar. This one's kind of a no-brainer. (Homemade honey and maple syrup are still always fair game, however!)

3. Ditch the clothes that aren't my color. Surprise, surprise -- not all colors look great on everybody. There are colors for warm skin-toned people and colors for cool skin-toned people. I have cool skin, which means I should wear lots of blue, green, and dark red -- all the colors I happen to like best anyway! This also means I no longer have to feel guilty about not holding onto that hot pink shirt that makes me look like I have the flu.

4. Give my brain a workout. Most people's resolutions have something to do with exercising their bodies, but nothing for exercising their brains. Well, your brain is a muscle too. Ok, not really; it's a giant pile of fat, or so I'm told. (I've never actually seen a brain, so I'm taking their word for it.) But "use it or lose it" applies to brains as well as muscles. I want my brain to last as long as I do, so I have to make sure it gets a workout, too. Maybe I'll take up learning Greek again. (I swear I could feel those new neural pathways being excavated.)

09 December 2018

Snow Day

Right now, it's snowing in the Charlotte area. I know, I can hardly believe it either.

It's nice to see it, anyway. I'm told I'll be seeing more of it here in the upper Carolina than I did in the lower -- which isn't news to anybody, least of all to me. "Oh, North Carolina gets a lot of snow," a Charlotte native assured me. I was happy to hear this, until I remembered that what southerners call a lot of snow is what New Englanders refer to as "a dusting." As in, a layer as thin and fine as dust. As in, not "a lot a snow."

The varying amounts of wintertime precipitation aren't the only differences experienced by the north and south. The snow itself is of a different quality depending on where you are.

In Connecticut (and, I suspect, farther north as well), midwinter snow is very dry, fluffy, and powdery. If you look carefully at what falls on your coat sleeve, for example, you can make out the intricate, hexagonal patterns of snowflakes. This kind of snow flies up in a spray when the wind blows or when you kick it. (I have "shoveled" my front walk before just by kicking the snow out of the way.)

In warmer areas, snow is wetter, heavier, more slushy. It's harder to see individual snowflakes in this kind of snow because it tends to fall in wet, watery clumps. It makes for great snowballs and snowmen, but it's decidedly more unpleasant to shovel, to dig one's vehicle out of, or to drive in. I find that most of the people who complain about snow have usually only experienced this latter type. Which is a shame, because snow deserves a better reputation than it has in these parts of the country.

And really, the snow haters don't have as much to worry about as they think. The snow usually melts so fast that you never have to worry about cleaning it off your car or your sidewalk. And you certainly never have to worry about your roof caving in under the weight of too much snow and ice. This is a real worry up north in many a harsh winter.

You also never get to go sledding, or experience that nice "ahhh" feeling after you come inside to your roaring fire after playing outside in a foot or more. Can you tell I miss living up north?

However. You can make maple snow taffy with any kind of snow, and almost any amount. Now that's some good news.

24 November 2018

Thanksgiving Traditions

My favorite Thanksgivings were always the ones we spent at the cabin. Sometimes we were there and sometimes we were at my parents' house in town, but one event was (is) always constant: taking down a tree or several, and splitting a ton of firewood for the coming colder months. Those were our Thanksgiving must-haves, just like turkey and football are for the rest of America.

These back-breaking holiday chores came with several benefits: (1) They helped us work up an appetite for dinner, (2) if I was helping with the wood outside, it meant I wasn't helping with the food prep inside, and (3) once we sat down to dinner, our list of things we could thank God for included the fact that we were all safe and out of harms' way (falling trees) and a little closer to having the heat we needed for the winter ahead.

It wasn't a bad way to stay in shape, either.

Now that I make my abode in warmer climes, I miss those days of Thanksgiving tree work, of bracing cold air and food cooked by someone other than me. My dad and my brother did the wood cutting without me this year, and I'm sure I felt my own absence more keenly than they did (I'm a bit shorter on brute strength than they are, but I do what I can).

It couldn't be helped. I was moving into my new house in a new state this week, so that event kind of made my plans for me. My Thanksgiving day was spent sorting through piles of boxes and junk and answering texts from friends and relations who dropped me a line to ask if I was finished moving in yet, if I was cooking my turkey yet, if I was traveling for the holiday... After the umpteenth inquiry along these lines, I admit I kind of wanted to slap the well-meaning inquirer with something. Except that all of my "somethings" were still packed up carefully in their boxes.

I was a little bummed about missing out on turkey and cranberry sauce, but then Wesley said, "Hey, let's hit up that Indian buffet we drove past the other day!" -- and just like that, I wasn't thinking about turkey anymore. After several rounds of tandoori chicken, tikka masala, curried lamb and chai tea, I wasn't even thinking about the giant pile of mess waiting for me at home anymore. It was absolutely wonderful. In fact, I actually felt a little sorry for all the poor people who only got to have turkey and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving day -- how boring!

I think I may have found my new Thanksgiving tradition.

09 November 2018

Non Life-Changing Advice

Since times have changed and now we're free and easy with spilling the details of our private lives online for all the world to see (thanks, social media!), here's one about me you always probably never wanted to know: I never make my bed.

Well, hardly ever. I used to make it every day while our house was on the market, in case a realtor dropped in with prospective buyers. But most of the time, I simply don't see a reason to.

I know, I'm horrible. I'm a grown-up adult -- almost a middle-aged one, by now -- and the end of every day still sees my bed exactly as it was left when I got out of it that morning. My mother is wringing her hands and wondering where she went wrong, I am sure.

But I don't see the point. And when I don't see the point of something, I tend to... well... not do it. For me, bed-making falls into that category labeled Things Everyone Says You Should Do But There's No Real Consequence If You Don't. I mean, what's the worst that could happen? Nobody ever died of an unmade bed. Besides, it's not like I have anyone to impress -- I'm married.

Nevertheless, I try to keep an open mind. I was reading an article one day, written by a successful real estate investor, that claimed making your bed is a life-changing habit sure to get you on the road to success in all areas of your life. She said I should do it every day, for thirty days, and see what would happen. I might even be a different person at the end of that thirty days in ways I couldn't imagine now -- all because I made my bed.

I myself couldn't divine any correlation between personal success and tucking in my bed sheets, but as I said -- I keep an open mind. So every day for thirty days I dutifully made my bed and waited for opportunity to knock, for the great life changes to unveil themselves, now that they no longer had my askew and awry bedding standing in their way.

I waited and waited some more.  And what do you know -- they never showed. But I'm okay with that. I didn't much like making my bed. I'm still a penniless failure, but at least now I'm a comfy, cozy failure -- with sheets untucked and blankets mussed up just the way I like them.

25 October 2018

Why I Don't Speak King James

While traveling in Quebec City, my travel companion (who also happened to be my aunt) and I found ourselves quite frequently having to apologize for our lack of French-speaking skills. Aunt Beth would clasp her hands apologetically, lean forward ever so slightly and say, "I'm very sorry, I don't speak French." The way she said it, she really did sound very sorry.

I have to confess to a similar lack of proficiency in "Bible-ese" -- King James and otherwise -- except that I do understand it; I don't speak it, and I'm not all that sorry about it.

Don't get me wrong; it's not that I think it's simply terrible. King James English has a long-held and honorable place in literature and in history. Though I do admit to finding it humorous when a speaker of modern American English abruptly switches to Shakespearean when in prayer, as if God might not otherwise comprehend. No, my beef with King James English (and "Biblical" terminology in general) isn't that they use it to talk to God. It's that they address me with it.

Case in point: I was scolded by someone the other day for my "worldly" perspective on something. (I had the audacity to defend a viewpoint that the other person considered outrageously feminist.) Being on the receiving end of a long-winded, self-righteous tirade made me realize: You know, I don't think I'm all that big a fan of this term worldly. Not merely because the other person was misunderstanding me. And not merely because language changes over time, and these days worldly means something more like "mature, savvy; cosmopolitan."

No, I'm not a fan because it seems at odds with critical thinking. Dee Parsons over at the Wartburg Watch says, "Whenever Jezebel, Hitler or Satan is brought into the discussion, we have left the realm of thoughtful commentary." I feel the same way about worldly and other Bible-isms.

You might think this argument leaves me without a leg to stand on, theologically speaking. After all, doesn't the Bible speak out against the ways of "the world"? Doesn't it warn against the peril of loving the world and being conformed to it? Indeed it does. But context matters in this discussion. The Bible also says "For God so loved the world", and "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth [the same word translated elsewhere as world]... and saw that it was good." We are all part of the world that God created.

Most Christians who use "the world" in conversation aren't mindful of this distinction, however. They tend to use it as code for "anything I don't agree with." If you're on their side in any given argument, you're spiritual and righteous. If you take the opposing view, you're worldly (shame on you).

"Worldly", in my opinion, fosters an escapist mentality. It effectively "others" people with whom we disagree, making us believe that we don't need to take the time to hear their perspective.

Besides coming off as incredibly alienating and "ivory tower", the words world and worldly fail to capture exactly why someone objects to something. Don't tell me that drinking is bad because it's worldly; that's a cop-out. Flesh it out for me. Why are you uncomfortable with it? You might believe that I'll become addicted, or you're worried about my reputation, or perhaps you have an alcoholic friend or family member. We can address those specific concerns and at least come to mutual understanding, if not to agreement. But dismissing something out of hand as "worldly" tends not to be conducive to such dialogue.

A similar issue exists with the past-its-prime term "fleshly." For some reason, people in my circles who drop the word fleshly in casual conversation demonstrate an appalling lack of both interpersonal and self-awareness: "I have a hard time getting up early to do my devotions, and it's because of my flesh." "The reason so many church members are missing from prayer meeting is because they're fleshly." No, getting up early is hard because it's hard, and because your body is built to run on a certain number of hours of sleep. Maybe prayer meeting is poorly attended because people want some time in the evening with their families after having spent all morning and part of the afternoon in church. (Or maybe, just maybe, prayer meeting is boring!)

I'd also add "old nature" and "sin nature" to the list of offenders. Again, my disagreement isn't with the facts, per se: Is humanity's nature beset by sin, by brokenness? I personally believe so. Yet for some reason the place I most often hear "old nature" used is in reference to the totally normal and age-appropriate behaviors of children: Crying infants. Toddlers getting into mischief because they're curious about exploring the world around them. Energetic preschoolers running around making noise. Supposedly, it's "old nature" -- and nothing else -- that makes the baby fuss during a church service, or the toddler get upset because he has to sit still for storytime.

That's why I personally don't use these terms if I can help it. They don't encourage us to dig deeper into what's really going on, either with ourselves or with others.

20 October 2018

Bed-Warming Options: Pros & Cons

This post is written in honor of all those wonderful places [not here] that are experiencing cooler fall weather, especially at night. If you live in a place that gets really chilly toward the end of the year, sometimes socks or flannel sheets aren't enough. Here's my review of all your various bed-warming options (feel free to comment with any I've forgotten):

1. Husband
Pros: You get a heat source that's the same size as your body -- or larger -- that can also give you hugs and cuddles.
Cons: Your heat source may accidentally kick or elbow you, snore, sleep-talk, or steal the blankets. Also, heat output is non-adjustable and may be too hot on warmer nights.

2. Dog
Pros: Dog is softer and fuzzier than husband.
Cons: Dog is smaller than husband and therefore less useful as a heat source. Claws, wet nose, and excessive wiggling tend to detract from usefulness, as do the shedding of fur and the leaving of stink on the sheets.

3. Corn bag
Pros: You heat it in the microwave, so you don't have to worry about the thing shorting out or burning you alive in your bed like you might with electric heat sources.
Cons: Needs to be constantly reheated to maintain warmth. Has a distinct aroma that will probably give you inconvenient cravings for popcorn.

4. Electric blanket 
Pros: Similar to Husband, it will provide you with a large surface area of warmth, but won't invade your space or hog the blankets, because it is a blanket.
Cons: I don't suppose there are any, as long as you use newer electric blankets. I can only tell you my experience with the old ones, which were all my parents had and which I heartily don't recommend, especially after they get threadbare. The wires inside give it a stiff, "crunchy" feeling, and the presence of electric current also means you can hear your blanket buzzing if the room is quiet enough. Kind of weird. I also don't recommend using electric blankets while sleeping outside (or semi-outside, like on a screened-in porch), because what if it rains? Can you get electrocuted by your bedding? I don't know, but this thought has definitely kept me awake on many a rainy night.

5. Heating pad
Pros: Similar to a corn bag, but you don't need a microwave.
Cons: Similar to an electric blanket, but (I assume) the smaller size poses a smaller risk. Maybe not. If it shocks you or catches your bed on fire like the tag says it can, I guess it doesn't really matter what size it was to start with.

6. 18th-century bed warmer
Pros: I don't know; I've never used one before.
Cons: You're basically sleeping with a frying pan.

13 October 2018

On Changing the World

Nevertheless, it is good to be zealous if it serves a noble purpose. ~Galatians 4:18

If you're having a dull day, engage someone in conversation about how one does -- or does not -- make the most of their mortal, earthbound life. I guarantee it'll stir the pot. If you're having this discussion in Christian circles, it'll be more like stirring a hornet's nest, so proceed cautiously or not at all.

Recently I was privy to a conversation being hashed out on the well-worn and weary battlefield of the "mommy wars", i.e., should mothers be career women or stay-at-home moms? As I'm not a mom, and therefore not the best person to advise mothers on how to proceed there, I mostly stayed out of it.

It wasn't long before the discussion took a predictable turn from motherhood modus operandi toward something more all-encompassing: the dichotomizing of success versus obscurity and sacred versus secular; of using one's gifts to serve family versus reaching out to the world at large.

I've observed a pattern in general Christian discourse on what's deemed "sacred" and what's "secular." Menial tasks and "small" acts of service (for which stay-at-home-motherhood has become symbolic, probably because parenting requires so much thankless work and selflessness) tend to end up in the former category. Meanwhile careers, money-making, and/or high-profile ministry are equated with self-aggrandizement and avarice and are usually in the latter category. "Contentment with little things" is put on a pedestal; "ambition" and "accomplishment" are demonized as self-centered and worldly.

Among Christian women, the ranks of defenders of the "sacred" category are well populated. The same tired, worn-out arguments are paraded out again and again: that God doesn't call us to be successful; that worldly success isn't a reliable indicator of His blessing; that anyone who wants to attain a measurable degree of influence in this world is just ensnared by the love of money and the praise of men. Besides, Jesus lived in poverty and relative obscurity, so who do we think we are trying to have influence anyway. Stop looking for success. Keep your head down and fold your laundry. Be faithful in the little things.

And I can guarantee that somewhere along the way, there'll be an impassioned plea to just silence the voices telling women what to do, already.

It's funny, because the voice that scolds us for even bothering to have this conversation is also a voice telling us what to do. It's essentially an attempt to steer the conversation by shutting it down.

So I'm going to be that tiresome, incorrigible iconoclast who asks us not to do that, but instead, to keep our minds open to possibilities. Possibilities such as: Having big dreams and wanting to do "great things for God" (as cheesy as that phrase sounds!) doesn't have to mean you are self-glorifying or not "faithful in the little things." It's not an either/or choice. As Katelyn Beaty, the former managing editor of Christianity Today, expresses it in her article "Ambition: It's for Women Too":

"Sadly, this gives women false choices in identity formation. You can either be nurturing and self-sacrificing or ambitious. But Jesus—and many saints throughout history who set the world on fire for God—dismantles that false dichotomy. We can be self-giving and self-driven, content with our circumstances, yet deeply discontent when those circumstances are filled with suffering and injustice. Rather than dismissing ambition outright, we need to ask what ends our ambitions serve and then amplify those ambitions when they serve good, holy ends." (emphasis mine)

Yes, there are some risks in entertaining this idea. We might have to start viewing the world as a place rich with potential for adventure and personal growth and giving, rather than a bad place full of bad ideas that are out to get us. We might be invited to dust off our imaginations and put them to use. (Imagine that!) We might even be asked to question our cherished presuppositions, or the present arrangement of our priorities. I say "we" and "our" because I include myself in this ongoing process of self-adjustment.

When I say "change the world," I'm referring to the scope of our efforts, not necessarily the size of our impact (which isn't totally within our control anyway). It need not necessarily entail anything grand. It can mean volunteering for a worthy cause in your neighborhood or sponsoring a child on the other side of the world, as well as writing books or starting a successful business or donating lots of money.

Frankly, I'm a little tired of the negativity that instantly comes out when anyone talks about "changing the world." It's true that some wannabe world-changers -- young ones especially -- overestimate their ability to make a dramatic, large-scale impact, but so what? They'll learn eventually. And you never know, maybe someday they will make a big difference! But that's a lot less likely to happen if they're always hearing that it's wrong for them to think that way; that they "shouldn't be focusing on success." Come to think of it, I'm honestly not sure why the idea of "success" raises some people's hackles so much -- I mean, what is it about failure that they find so appealing? That question is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there's a grain of truth there...

I suspect that many of them are simply caricaturing. They think anyone who talks about ambition is a stereotypical Machiavellian go-getter. Or they believe that effecting change in the world necessarily comes at the expense of caring for their families and their ordinary, everyday responsibilities. Or they misunderstand "influencing culture" (to borrow a term Beaty uses) to mean always being "movers and shakers", on the level of politicians and movie makers. Or they somehow mishear that the only worthwhile work takes place at a 9-5 job, and most of us aren't saying that... at all.

The most uncharitable -- but common -- assumption of all is that everyone who wants to change the world or have influence is just trying to make a name for themselves. So a couple of caveats are in order. Yes, it's true that for most of us, our accomplishments won't end up in the pages of history books. Yes, it's true that God doesn't call most of us to fame and fortune, and we'd be foolish to use those things as the only measurement. Yes, it's true that power corrupts. Yes, Jesus was poor and unconcerned with his social status.

In my opinion, the argument that we shouldn't seek influence because Jesus didn't is a pretty poor one. At the very least, most people making it aren't ready to take their own advice: If you have a social media account, you've already given yourself a larger public platform than Jesus ever had, or sought.

It's time to stop villifying the concept of influence. It may help to pare down all of the baggage associated with the word (prestige, authority, power-mongering etc.) and return to its most basic definition: having an effect on others. If that is "influence", we'd be foolish not to try have influence wherever we can. The sky is the limit.

Jesus did it. He was a person of tremendous influence. He was a world-changer -- without a doubt, the biggest one there ever was.

"[Jesus] had a pure and powerful inward will: to preach the gospel of salvation, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to be a stumbling block to the haughty and powerful, and to take up the cross in all its crushing weight to accomplish his most important work of atoning for the sins of the world.

This is the type of ambition that we Christians are to have, by God’s grace, no matter our stage of life or spheres of influence. Oriented toward God, ambition is the setting of the will to accomplish the desire of the heart. It is the motor that keeps us pressing for shalom, for hints of his kingdom to appear in our offices and schools and city halls and homes." -- Katelyn Beaty, A Woman's Place

You may take issue with Beaty's choice of wording (powerful, crushing weight, etc.) and argue that she's being hyperbolic. (Full disclosure: I'm not the biggest fan of Christian superlative terminology myself.) But the point remains: Jesus was a world changer, a restorer of shalom, and we walk in His footsteps. The love of Christ compels us. The love of Christ -- not of money or success merely as an end in itself -- motivates us to lift our gaze from our homes and families to the community and the world around us and ask how our gifts can be put to use there. Yes, it is possible. Holy ambition and faithfulness aren't mutually exclusive, and I doubt that most of us are so strapped for time and energy that we can't dream at least a little. Who knows what kind of difference we might make!