31 October 2017

Small Fundamentalist Church Schools: Truth & Falsehoods, Part 2

Continued from yesterday...

6. "My child will be safer at a SFCS than anywhere else." The meaning of "safer" is somewhat up for grabs here. Safer from guns, drugs, and violence? Quite likely. But parents who make this statement are usually referring to two dangers in particular: (1) bullying, and (2) ideology that goes against their beliefs (evolution, secular humanism, non-abstinence-only sex education, etc.).

Well, thanks to the parents who treat the SFCS as a reform school (see #4 from yesterday's post), your average SFCS student isn't necessarily guaranteed not to come in contact with bullies or bad influences. Even worse, the "bad influences" can include adults as well: It's not unheard of for a SFCS not to require educational training or background checks for their staff members, many of whom occupy low-paid or volunteer positions. Without a solid system in place for vetting the "bad apples", the door is open for all kinds of less-than-ideal scenarios, from inept classroom management (at best) to an abusive situation (at worst). (The high frequency of abuse incidences in fundamentalist communities -- of which the SFCS is often an integral part -- is an unfortunate reality, though not always a well-publicized one).

The supposed imperativeness of protecting children from "false ideas" is a sticky subject. I can sympathize with concerned parents who don't want certain ideologies and agendas popular in government-run schools to be pushed on their children. On the other hand, it's a good idea for students to be equipped (in age-appropriate ways) to grapple and engage with opposing viewpoints -- not simply for the purposes of rebutting them, but also in order to identify deficiencies in their own preconceptions.

But this undertaking requires healthy doses of critical thinking, and critical thinking isn't a strong suit of your average SFCS. Pat answers and "explanations" that boil down to "This is wrong because we said so!" are much more their style. This is often (though not always) a consequence of the school being under the auspices of an authoritarian church that requires blind obedience to "those in authority." Taking the "because I said so" route is also more straightforward, requires less effort up front, and seems less risky. It doesn't require trusting students to think for themselves, in which case they might go off track and get too comfortable with the wrong idea.

This is short-sighted, though, because once your children go to college or get a job, they will be exposed to those influences from which you labored so diligently to shield them. You will want them to have their feet on a solid foundation when that time comes. And yes, their church and home life should be laying that solid foundation as well.

In my case, however, the school was the place that really came up short in this area. The school was the place where kids had to turn off their brains, to memorize and recite their King James Bible verses or else. Considering that one of formal education's primary purposes is ostensibly to stimulate and activate the brain, not shut it down, that strikes me as opposite of the way things should be.

7. "SFCS is adequate preparation for college." This should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, obviously, but here's why this one has my "no" vote based on my experience:

Much admittedly depends on what kind of classroom model a school uses. My school used the Accelerated Christian Education model, created by School of Tomorrow (a name that couldn't be less descriptive of what it actually is: outdated and regressive). Their main approach to academic work was fairly mindless: you read the paragraph, located the answers, and filled in the blanks. From the lower grades all the way through the end of high school, the curriculum rarely deviated from this format. It relied almost exclusively on lower levels of thinking -- rote memorization and basic reading comprehension. Higher levels of thinking, of the kind that require students to apply what they've learned, or to analyze something to discover how it works, or to synthesize -- use what they've learned to create something new -- were largely absent. In subjects where the help of a teacher or a hands-on demonstration would have been invaluable to learning the material (think math and science), we had to make do without.

The ACE model dictated that students complete their work while sitting in cubicles facing the wall. No interaction with others was allowed, except at break times. Because each student worked independently at his or her own grade level, there were no group assignments and no need for a teacher. There were, however, classroom supervisors and monitors who observed the class and made sure everyone was dotting their i's and crossing their t's (ACE required extreme strictness about all the minutiae of classroom conduct* being just so).

This was all done in the name of teaching students to think and work independently. I would be the last one to dispute the importance of such a skill, but in today's world, like it or not, knowing how to collaborate and cooperate with others is a big deal. A student who is handicapped in this area will struggle mightily in college and even more so in their job when they don't know how to navigate normal social interactions or "be a team player."

And boy, did college ever give me a tough time. At the start, being constantly surrounded by so many people all at once overwhelmed me. Not that the on-campus resident population was very large -- in 2006 it was around 400 or so -- but it was gigantic compared to my SFCS's student body, which at that time was a grand total of sixteen students from K-12. I had no idea how to act in such a setting, and I did do some learning the hard way.

I struggled with the lecture format in class and with having a teacher (although I quickly adapted to it and enjoyed it). I struggled with studying for tests that required me to do something other than fill in the blanks. I struggled with writing papers, because I'd never written any before. I struggled with group work, because I'd always done my own thing without having to bother about what anybody else was doing. I warmed up pretty quickly to having a whole class full of students working on the same assignments as me, though. It's great to have peers who can lend you their brains on archane subjects, like astronomy. Ultimately, the fact that I survived and even thrived is due only to the grace of God (and the fact that Bible college is a very forgiving environment for socially maladroit homeschoolers and the like).

The most damaging part of SFCS for me was that it taught me to set my sights low. Not to know or develop my talents and strengths, not to aspire to anything. To be concerned more with what to think rather than how to think. To view the world at large with fear and disdain, as a place to withdraw from, instead of as a place rich with unexplored possibilities, in need of the unique gifts God entrusted me with. How might my path in life been different if not for that? I don't like to think about it, but if I can spare others from making the same mistake, I will.

My final bit of advice to parents at the end of all this is: do your research thoroughly before choosing a school for your child. Know what to look for, and know what your child really needs and in what kind of setting they will shine. Don't evaluate a school merely on the basis of what it says about itself. The old adage that "children are the future" is true, and so it behooves them (and you) to invest in that future as wisely and thoughtfully as possible.

*For example, not pushing in your chair after standing up was a punishable offense, as was "sitting incorrectly", i.e., sitting in any way other than feet flat on the floor and back straight against the chair. I kid you not. (Because we all know what becomes of those public school delinquents who are allowed to sit cross-legged or -- heaven forbid -- SLOUCH. It's the gateway to all kinds of other misdemeanors, you know).

30 October 2017

Small Fundamentalist Church Schools: Truths & Falsehoods, Part 1

This fall marks the 20th anniversary of my high school's founding. (An extremely loose definition of the term high school should be understood here.) I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm amazed, and a bit impressed, that the whole business has managed to stay afloat for so long -- two-thirds of my lifetime. On the other hand, part of me feels that twenty years for it to have gone on is, frankly, twenty years too long.

The small, fundamentalist church school movement (hereafter referred to as SFCS) has certainly gained a lot of traction among certain segments of Christianity, but its supporters are not always well informed as to what exactly it is they're supporting, both financially and in their unquestioned acceptance of the school's educational philosophies.

I need to differentiate these schools from Christian schools in general, because they are a very different sort of animal. The type of school I'm referring to here has several distinguishing characteristics, as follows:

1. They're small: the total student body is less than 50 students, or does not necessarily have students at each grade level from kindergarten through twelfth, or there are fewer than five students per grade level. All the students are together in one room, rather than being separated by grade (or there may be separate areas for elementary/high school students, but each grade level doesn't have its own classroom).
2. They're fundamentalist: By "fundamentalist" I don't mean simply that they adhere to the basics of Christianity; I mean they are legalistic in matters of faith, and tend to regard with suspicion "modern" pedagogical theory and practice.
3. They're an offshoot of, and overseen by, a local church.
4. They more closely resemble a homeschooling co-op than a proper "school" as such. Their curriculum is largely self-taught rather than teacher-taught.

What follows is a few of the most common -- but largely unsupported -- assertions made by the parents and supporters of the SFCS I attended. Inasmuch as this limited platform allows me to do so, I'd like to shed a little light on some of these claims and the consequences of holding unexamined beliefs about SFCSs and their practices. My credentials on this topic are nine years as a student at a SFCS, one-and-a-half years as a board member, and a bachelor's degree in education, for whatever those may be worth to you.

Let's begin, shall we? First up:

1. "My child will get a better education at a SFCS than in the public school." This may be true, or it may not be, depending on a multiplicity of factors. These include: the school's educational philosophy, the type and variety of curricula in use, and the quality of public schools in your district -- not to mention your child him/herself and how s/he responds to the SFCS atmosphere. All these factors are highly variable and unique to each situation and individual. Additionally, SFCSs and public schools are not the only two options open to you. There are private schools, both faith-based and secular, there are charter schools, Montessori schools, and homeschooling, to name just a few, and each one should be evaluated on its own merits. The bottom line is, the superiority of SFCSs to all other available alternatives is not something that can simply be taken for granted.

2. "Self-taught curriculum is better than teacher-taught." This is less often the case than you'd expect. Many children do excel in a self-paced curriculum (and many do not); however, it's a very, very rare student that cannot benefit at all from having a teacher, particularly for subjects in which they struggle. Even in areas where they aren't having difficulty, the insight and skills of a teacher or tutor can challenge students to look at things in new ways and not "get stuck" on only one way of absorbing knowledge. In short, learner autonomy is a fabulous thing, but a good teacher will facilitate, not hinder, that process.

3. "My child loves self-taught curriculum and speeds through it lightning fast -- this proves it's a better fit for them!" This makes the same amount of sense as saying that because your child eats candy faster and more willingly than they eat vegetables, candy is therefore better for them than vegetables. Parents, I sincerely hope that I -- a non-parent -- am not the first one to break this bad news to you, but the mere fact that your kid likes something isn't proof that it's the best thing for them.

Instead, take a look at the big picture. Does your child retain what they've learned over the long term? Can they apply their knowledge outside of and beyond the curriculum's limited format? How do they perform on standardized tests? These are all pertinent factors you can (and should) consider when evaluating a curriculum for your child's needs and abilities.

4. "A SFCS can reform my child's behavior/attitude problems." At the SFCS I attended, there were parents who all but admitted this was their primary reason for enrolling their child. They had come to the end of their rope with discipline problems at home, and were passing the buck onto the school in hopes that the staff there could work some magic they themselves hadn't been able to. This scenario repeated itself over and over in the course of my years in school. Wanna guess how many times it was successful? If you said "zero", yes! You are correct. Gold star for you.

Not only was it impossible in every case for the school to "fix" the problems of the delinquent student, but the distraction and disruptiveness of it all caused other students' learning to suffer, as well. It also strained the limited resources of the staff, who found themselves in over their heads with problems that would have been better served by a counselor, special education teacher, or -- in the vast majority of cases -- a good old-fashioned spanking. (In that last instance, I place the blame squarely on the school for even accepting those students in the first place, once the parents had made their intentions known. They really should have known better.)

5. "A SFCS can save us money -- we don't need all those extracurricular activities!" Ah, money -- the great motivator. Some parents are simply seeing the opportunity for their child to get a dirt-cheap private school education, so they're grabbing it. Why not? It makes sense. But in this case, frugality (ironically) comes with a high price tag: Some SFCSs believe that academics can -- and should -- take a backseat to "Christian character training." Their lack of regard for activities deemed "secular" and "extraneous" reflects this philosophy. Exactly what activities fall under this umbrella, you might ask? Well, that varies, but in my school's case, the answer was pretty much everything that wasn't Scripture memorization or that wasn't mandated by the state as a minimum requirement for graduation.

We did have a few "extra" activities during my time there, led by undoubtedly well-meaning church members who volunteered to come to the school every so often in order to share with everyone a demonstration in some subject area they were interested in. I recall having sessions now and then that we called "art class", "cooking class", "gym class", "language class", and so forth, but these happened only sporadically, were very disorganized when they did happen, were not taught by qualified educators, and (so far as I know) didn't count for any sort of credit. They seemed to be mostly for amusement value.

Here are my two cents on this matter: Don't rely on an institution that has neither the means nor the motivation to maximize your child's full intellectual, athletic, and/or artistic potential. The ramifications of them missing out on opportunities during their formative years will continue long after those years have passed. It's worth keeping in mind that, with education, as with most everything else in life, you get what you pay for. Or, at least, you won't get what you don't pay for.

Continued tomorrow...

27 October 2017

30 Things I Know Now That I'm 30

1. Coffee doesn't stunt anyone's growth.

2. In order to make (and keep) friends, you have to make the first move a lot more often than you'd think.

3. However, "be friendly and you will have friends" is only true to a point. Only 50% of any relationship depends on you. If the other person is determined not to engage, the onus is not on you to try to be friendly enough to change their mind.

4. Fear isn't, on its own, a good enough reason not to do something.

5. There is no benefit to eating an entire large pizza in one sitting, even if you can do so without getting sick.

6. Don't be afraid of meeting internet friends in person. You might end up marrying one of them.

7. There's a good chance you know more about what you need to be healthy than your doctor does.

8. Everyone you meet knows something you don't. Keep an open mind.

9. Spend more on quality.

10. The world today is different from that of our parents and grandparents. Today, smart work, not necessarily hard work, is a better predictor of success. Putting in long hours and hard effort at your job doesn't necessarily mean you'll get paid more, but it does probably mean you'll be taken advantage of.

11. The World War II generation tends not to grasp this fact. Be patient with them when they tell you that because they made a comfortable living raising six kids on one blue collar income, so can you. (Most of them really do mean well.)

12. Sushi and rare steak, if properly prepared, shouldn't be scary.

13. You can almost always lower the amount of sugar in a dessert recipe, and it'll be just as good.

14. Emotions are important. Just because you shouldn't let them get out of control, doesn't mean they should be discredited, either.

15. Cooking organic food at home is still cheaper than eating out.

16. You can't control anybody else's actions. You can, however, control your own actions in response to others' (known in some circles as the law of sowing and reaping).

17. On an average day, nobody cares how you look: they're all too busy worrying about how they look.

18. When someone else says they know God's will for your life, proceed with extreme caution.

19. Your parents were probably just doing what they thought was best.

20. People will nag you about when you plan to check off certain boxes in life: driver's license, first job, college, marriage, parenthood, etc., etc., but given enough time, they won't even remember, much less care about, the choice you made or didn't make.

21. Refusing to disclose your life's plans to every Nosey Nellie who asks is totally okay too.

22. It's okay to want to make enough money to have a reasonably comfortable existence.

23. However, you can get by with a lot less than you think.

24. If high school seems like a waste of time, that's because (spoiler) it is. Sorry. I can confirm your suspicions that mastering trigonometry, memorizing the states and capitols, or dissecting frogs won't, in fact, come in handy later in life. That is, of course, unless you end up in a place where random useless information is in demand. Like a game show. Or a government job.

25. Order something from Oriental Trading just once, and you will get their catalog every week for the rest of your life.

26. You need probiotics.

27. Time is always worth more than money.

28. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. (Sometimes it's "nothing gained" regardless, but if you don't try, you'll always wonder how things could have turned out.)

29. Do the best you can, until you can do better.

30. You can spend your time any way you want, but you can only spend it once.

24 October 2017

To Stay Awake, Perchance to Get Work Done

People ask me if I'm an early bird or a night owl. I don't think I'm either one.

When I think early bird or morning person, the image that immediately comes to mind is one of a hardcore spartan who lives on granola and celery and gets up at sunrise every day to go on a 5-mile jog. Well, that's not me, exactly, which my worn-out snooze button would tell you if it could talk.

And when I think night owl, I think of my husband, who, if he didn't have a day job, would stay up most of the night and turn in at about the time that the jogger is getting up to go jogging. That's definitely not me either. No burning the midnight oil for me. I can burn the 10 p.m. oil or the 11 p.m. oil with the best of them, but sometime between midnight and 1 a.m., something mysterious happens. The oil suddenly runs out and I turn into a pumpkin. It's the darnedest thing. Happens every time.

But at least I can "rise and shine" in the morning without much of a fight, unlike most night owls, and I can stay up later in the evening than most morning people, so I guess it's nice to have that happy medium. "Early to bed, early to rise, makes one healthy and wealthy and wise", they say, but health, wealth, and wisdom don't have much to do with one's bedtime if you ask me. My mother's father rose every morning at 3 a.m. to milk his cows, and he was never wealthy a day in his life. Healthy, yes. Anytime he ate fruit, he ate the whole thing -- skins, seeds, pits, and all -- so, I mean, anybody whose fiber intake is that high can't help but be healthy. But wise? Well... he believed the earth was flat, and when asked who his favorite Bible character was, replied that he couldn't decide between his son-in-law or his pastor, because they were both such great Bible characters. So, you tell me.

Anyway, what I wish I was, but regrettably am not, is an "afternoon person."

The afternoon slump gets me really, really bad. It creeps up on me around 1 p.m. and subsides around six. Unfortunately, this time frame shares quite a bit of overlap with my work day.

I've followed all of Google's suggestions to remedy this problem, and still it persists. I've tried upping my caffeine intake. I've tried lowering my caffeine intake. I've tried cutting out carbs at lunchtime. I've tried doing cardio and skipping lunch altogether. None of it works. Mr. Sandman still pays me a visit every afternoon without fail.

Maybe I shouldn't fight it. Maybe those Latin American countries with their siestas are onto something.

Anyway, now, it's about 3 p.m., so I'm up way past my bedtime. Good night.

23 October 2017

Bi-Lo vs. Publix

If you live on the Beaufort County island chain, your two grocery store choices are Bi-Lo or Publix. (You also have Food Lion and Piggly-Wiggly, but I don't shop at either of them. The Food Lion near us reminds me too much of the Family Dollar stores and that depresses me. And I've never gone to Piggly-Wiggly, because who wants to shop at a place called "Piggly-Wiggly"?)

Both stores attract two vastly different sets of clientele. Publix decidedly favors the genteel, affluent lovers of the finer things in life -- the "just spent all day on the golf course, now picking up the steaks for my HOA block party" types. Bi-Lo is for the unpretentious, humbler crowd that lives on Oscar Meyer ham sandwiches and grabs up discounted produce. Bi-Lo is for people who need to, well, buy low. (I bet you can't guess which one I end up at most of the time!)

But shopping at Bi-Lo is, at least, a laid-back experience. Bi-Lo regulars are easygoing. They don't get impatient in line. If they're standing in front of something you need in an aisle, they'll gladly move aside and give you space. Most of them seem to have nothing to do and all day to do it, so they're taking their time and they're happy to let you take your time as well.

At Publix, he who hesitates is lost. Publix customers shop like they're on their way to a fire. There needs to be a Publix police force that patrols the store writing tickets to crazy cart drivers. I came up with this idea the other day when I became acutely aware that the person behind me was pushing their cart roughly two inches from my backside (give or take a millimeter) while matching my speed exactly. If I stopped to pick up something -- well, let's just say it would give a whole new meaning to getting rear ended. Help, my cart needs brake lights! What does one do in this situation? Should I make the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hand signals for "left", "right", "stop"? I ended up veering off down a random aisle and letting Mr. Hurry pass me. (Maybe that's an idea -- supermarket passing lanes.)

In terms of product quality and availability, Publix wins by a landslide. They're never mysteriously out of stock of staples like bread or milk or lettuce, and their stuff is fresher. Their produce never looks like it belongs in -- or came from -- a petri dish, which is a pretty big point in their favor if you ask me. At Publix, you have a better chance of getting your hands on "ethnic" options, from oxtails to carambola to Marmite. But you can forget about doing so at Bi-Lo, where the "exotic foods" are soy sauce and salsa. I can go to Publix and get everything on my shopping list in one visit. That's never once happened to me at Bi-Lo, and I've been shopping there for over two years.

But Bi-Lo has better sales (on the stuff that they do have). Bi-Lo has something you don't see much of in other parts of the country these days: honest-to-goodness BOGO Sales. Publix has them too, but they tend to have more of the "Buy One Get One 50% Off" variety or "Buy Two Get One Free." The problem is, you don't necessarily need three of whatever is on the Buy Two Get One deal. It takes most people awhile to go through three tubs of shortening or three king-size bags of Fair Trade gummy bears, for instance.

Bi-Lo has a loyalty card that you can earn gas points with. On my first trip to Publix, I made the grave error of inquiring whether they had a similar program. You would have thought I'd asked for cockroach droppings. "Good gracious, no," the nice lady said. "Loyalty cards are for plebes and heaven knows we don't want them here." Well, okay, she didn't say that part. She didn't need to. Her eyebrows did all the talking. (Publix is infamous for their high prices -- clearly, an aspect of their reputation they're not eager to part with.)

Last but not least, the shopping carts. Publix's shopping carts separate easily and they ride smoothly and noiselessly, like a brand new Lexus. Bi-Lo's shopping carts have to be wrestled apart. It's almost a two-person job. And then the racket they make while you push them around the store announces your approach from a long way off. Kind of like Wesley's old 1994 Honda, but without the muffler.

Bi-Lo, however, has parking lot cart returns for their cacophonous conveyances. Publix doesn't, so you're left with the choice of hefting your cart up on the sidewalk that separates the parking aisles, or being a jerk and leaving it in a parking space. I've done both, depending on how much of a hurry I'm in, and how much I feel up to lifting a heavy shopping cart.

So which one do I prefer? Well, neither, actually. I'm more partial to ethnic markets myself. I got used to them while living in California, and now I just don't like shopping anywhere else. I mean, if I can't find

sea snails

and octopus tentacles

and "instant jellyfish"

and gallon jars of kimchi

and piles of coconuts

and mushroom-shaped cookies

and oranges so fresh they still have leaves attached

and signs in Chinese telling me to interact with live merchandise at my own risk

... I'm just not that interested, you know?

18 October 2017

The Value of Pie

I know it looks like roadkill, but it's not. It's my favorite pie.

Over the past month or so, I've been taking a class. Well, it's not a class, exactly -- just an online, self-paced, not-for-credit, "personal-enrichment" (a.k.a: navel-gazing) class, about "finding your true purpose in life." I know, I know: it's a little late for me to be deciding what to do with my life since at least one third of it (and probably the best one-third, at that) is behind me. How well I know! But I got the "class" with a free coupon, so I couldn't pass it up. Also, it's taught by Tsh Oxenreider, and I'm a big fan of her work. Well, okay, I'm mostly a big fan of her name. But still.

So far, thanks to this class, I've acquired one indispensable bit of information: I'm in dire need of a reputation overhaul.

I discovered this when one of the assignments directed me to ask five people what they thought my top three strengths were. An excruciating exercise for them, as it was for me, but eye-opening nonetheless. Several of them said that baking a good pie was one of my top strengths.

Yes, baking a pie! How's that for flattering? My virtues are nothing you'll hear extolled in a sermon or see cross-stitched on a pillow. Instead, they come in different flavors (apple, pumpkin, rhubarb, cherry, blueberry, raspberry, redcurrant, lemon, and Venezuelan peach, to be exact).

This wasn't quite the information I was looking for. According to Ms. Oxenreider, the answers should have been something more along the lines of "caring", "sensitive", "courageous", outgoing", etc. (Okay, maybe not that last one.)

I should be flattered that my friends think my pies are the best thing about me, but actually, I find this troubling. If baking outshines my personality and good character, then that is not good news. It means I've got some serious work to do! (And maybe, while I'm at it, I need to find out if there's such a thing as a personality transplant waiting list somewhere, and if so, how I can get on it.)

The funny part of it is, I'm not even a particularly skilled pie chef. The reason everyone thinks I am, is simply that I do it in the first place. It's quaint. It's outmoded. Like calculating your taxes with an abacus, it's something nobody's dumb enough to bother with anymore, now that we have better ways of doing things. And it's a real headache, too. Making pie from scratch is a pain in the [insert 3-letter King James English word for donkey!].

Besides, I've had my share of pie casualties. Like chess pie, for instance. Ever heard of it? Yeah, me neither, until I tried it. Taste of Home magazine said that chess pie is very popular in the south, which doesn't explain why no southerner I've asked seems to know what it is.

I shouldn't have needed to try it to know it wouldn't be edible, much less tasty. Can any pie be edible that calls for six eggs, five cups of sugar, and a caramel topping? A real pie wizard could've made it work, but not me. Actually, pie isn't quite the right word -- it was less like a pie and more like pudding. Diabetes-flavored pudding. But somehow Taste of Home thought this mess was good enough for the Best Regional Recipe award. (If that's their idea of a Best Recipe, I'd hate to think what they would consider a bad one to be.) There are people out there who actually eat concoctions like these, and there are magazines that give them prizes! It's a scary world.

Anyway, have you ever put so much work into something that you couldn't bear to throw it away, even when it turned out to be completely useless? I may or may not have done that in this case. Besides, my parents taught me never, ever to waste food (even when its status as "food" is questionable). Since there was no room in the fridge, I stashed the pie, if you could call it that, away in a dark corner of my parents' root cellar and forgot about it.

The Old Testament says, "Be sure your sin will find you out." Well, you can be sure that hiding a botched-up pie will find you out, too. My mother discovered it several weeks later hiding among the cabbages, and said, "You made it; you better eat it."

Well, eating it was out of the question, but I had another idea. It was about the middle of May then, the time of year when we tend to have problems with carpenter ants. I put out some pieces of that awful sugary egg pie (by then it had congealed into slice-able form), and it lured them out of their hiding places to their doom. In fact, it attracted enough of them that we were able to make a sizable dent in our ant population that spring. So the moral of this story is: I'm not a great pie maker, but I am resourceful...

It's not enough to disavow my baking prowess, however. I'm going to have to actually try to become a better person, so that at my funeral, when my friends have to come up with something nice to say about me, they'll be able to think of something other than pie.

Something tells me I have my work cut out for me.

What can I say? I'm a work in progress. You will just have to bear with me.

I'm terribly sorry about that; I really am. Perhaps in the meantime I can offer you a slice of pie as a consolation prize.

Just kidding!

17 October 2017

8 Things I'll Never Say to My Dentist

1. Why is the dentist always a man and the hygienists are always women? I have always wanted to know this, but it's not exactly the kind of thing you ask. It sounds, well... sexist or something. But I do wonder.

2. Why do you have cookies and popcorn (!) in the waiting room? Isn't that just making more work for yourself? Also, you can't exactly lecture people about how sugar causes cavities if you're going to contribute to the problem.

3. Why do you need to X-ray under my tongue? There are no teeth under there. Seriously, why?

4. Yes, that does hurt. A lot. And then you say, "Oh come on now, that didn't hurt, did it?" Well... peel me off the ceiling and I'll show you!

5. Aaarrgghffftthhhh.... I'm not trying to be rude, but it is kinda hard to answer your questions when your hands are in my mouth.

6. Stop already with the lectures. I'm aware there is plaque on my teeth. Hence the reason why I'm here getting them cleaned. Well, no, it doesn't surprise me in the least that my gums bleed when you jab at them with the pick. So will any other part of my body that gets stabbed with a sharp metal object. Yes, I do floss every day. No, I'm not interested in making a full-time job out of it or investing in strange electronic flossing devices.

7. Why you gotta be so rude? I'm not the opinion police, but telling me that my teeth are "disgusting", or that I'll have trouble making friends or finding my dream job if I don't get braces, are two thoughts I'd probably keep to myself if I were you.

Seriously, dentists and dental hygienists are the only members of the professional world I know of who feel free to be ill-mannered with absolutely no repercussions. My doctor doesn't scold me for needing a pelvic exam and my mechanic doesn't scold me for my car needing an oil change. My teeth need routine maintenance just like everything else; how does that constitute an opportunity for harassment? And then you wonder why people hate the dentist or why they don't go regularly. I'll hazard a guess: maybe they don't like paying boatloads of money to get talked down to. I mean, if they're really in the mood for being verbally abused, all they have to do is troll in a chat room online. And that's free. 

Speaking of the cost...

8. This is making me go broke. It's part of the reason I visit only once a year, instead of every six months like you want me to. Also, feel totally free to foot the bill for braces if you're going to keep harping on me that I need them. No one's stopping you!

09 October 2017

Love and Respect vs. Logic and Reality, Part 3

In my previous post I discussed the alleged rights and privileges of husbands as per the claims of Dr. Emerson Eggerichs in Love and Respect. I have comparatively much less to say about what wives should expect out of the deal. Eggerichs admits that his book is more about respect than about love, and therefore men stand to gain more from it than women (because men are consistently underrepresented in matrimonial discourse, according to Eggerichs).

That said, I do want to give some attention to the wife's supposed motivation for following the Love and Respect formula. The theory goes that she should be respectful so that her husband will be loving. Amazingly (and completely contrary to what someone with a PhD in psychology ought to know about human nature), this system will spit out results like a vending machine. Any woman who presses all the right buttons will get what she wants, guaranteed. "When a husband receives unconditional respect from his wife, those fond feelings of affection will return, and he will start giving her the kind of love she has always hoped to receive" (p. 67). "When a wife respects her husband... he starts rolling out the red carpet for her!" (p. 80). "This is the key to empowerment: you get what you want by giving him what he wants" (p. 221).

It's very simple, ladies. Just worship the ground your husband walks on, and he will read you love poems by moonlight, buy you flowers, and basically be a Casanova with eyes only for you. (Regardless of whether or not he was ever this kind of man in the first place, apparently.)

The problem is that this only works until it doesn't. Some husbands are good men, but romantic overtures of the rom-com variety just aren't in their wheelhouse and never will be. Some husbands are married to the most wonderful, loving and caring wives who bend over backward trying to please them while getting very little in return for their trouble. (This can happen vice versa, as well -- but the point is, it happens. Probably more often than Dr. Eggerichs would like to think.)

Most sadly of all, some husbands are physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive, and prescribing the wife's "unconditional respect" as the remedy for this situation will do nothing but pour gasoline on the fire. Regrettably, application of the Love and Respect formula fosters an atmosphere that is ripe for abuse of all kinds (Nate Sparks has written on this at length here).

Eggerichs does reluctantly admit that some husbands and wives will be temporarily (or permanently) unresponsive to their spouse's respectful/loving initiatives. This caveat is shoehorned in on the book's final pages as a disclaimer of sorts, meaning that we are not to anticipate such a scenario as normative. And even if we could -- oh well, at least God is pleased with us for making a good effort.

I'm glad Eggerichs deigned to include this point somewhere in the book. But after nearly three hundred pages' worth of "love your spouse so that you'll get what you need/want", shifting to "love your spouse because it pleases God" comes across as too little, too late. This is unfortunate, because God's glory should be our first and highest aim, not a last resort when other options have been exhausted. It is the gold medal, not the consolation prize, and this applies whether we are in a good marriage, a bad marriage, or no marriage at all. It's no wonder Dr. Eggerichs glosses over this point, though. Humility is prerequisite to pleasing God, and humility is, by design, a foreign concept to Love and Respect. Probably because it doesn't boost anyone's ego. Or sell enough books.

At this point I need to say something to all the people out there who are miffed at me for having the nerve to malign a prized staple in their marriage library: If your marriage is in absolute shambles and you and your spouse are throwing rocks at each other all the way to divorce court, and you implement some of the suggestions in this book, you will see improvements (barring extenuating circumstances such as abuse, addiction, or mental illness). You can't go too far wrong, for example, by prioritizing quality time with your spouse, being affectionate, giving him/her your full attention when s/he is talking, apologizing when you're wrong, etc.

The problem comes when we try to put people into boxes. This circumvents the very valuable (but time-consuming and often humbling) process of getting to know them as individuals. When we take the "box" route, we tend to approach our relationship with our spouse as a self-made expert on what "all men need" or "all women want", and not as a student of this particular man, this particular woman and what he or she thinks, feels, and wants. When they disappoint us, we write them off: "typical man" or "emotional woman", instead of digging deep into the real heart of the matter.

Now, can you get away with doing this and still have a decent marriage? Yes, but why would you want to? Wouldn't you want to get to know your spouse for who they are, and not for who someone else says they should be?

And how about doing things for the right reason -- not to get the response we want, but because we love God and our love for our spouse is a genuine outflow of that? And no, I don't believe we get any heavenly brownie points for doing "the right thing" with an ulterior motive. The Apostle Paul said you can go to the point of superhuman feats (moving mountains) and even bodily harm (giving your body to be burned), but if you do it without love, then what? It's not as effective as it could be, or well, at least you tried?

No, it profits nothing. Not "a few things" or "less than the best", but nothing. A sobering thought, if you ask me.

To sum it all up, manipulation and self-serving motives are the poisonous seeds of the Love and Respect tree whose rotten fruits are abuse, dysfunction, and stunted growth, all perpetuated in the name of Christ. I'm more than a little surprised that so many Christians are continuing to blithely scatter these seeds and eat the rotten fruit by the bushel, and feed it to others as well. There is a universal truth about rotten things, though -- they have a way of disagreeing sooner or later. It's only a question of when, and how.

Fortunately, there is a remedy: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. Fix your eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

It's as simple (and profound and difficult) as that.

08 October 2017

Love and Respect vs. Logic and Reality, Part 2

I have said that in my opinion, Emerson Eggerichs, author of Love and Respect, fails to provide us with a satisfactory definition for either love or respect, and also fails to demonstrate any sort of meaningful relationship or distinction between the two. Hence, his assertion that love is exclusively the need of wives and respect is exclusively the need of husbands is baseless.

If you ask me, these discrepancies are more than enough to disqualify his teaching as incoherent and self-repudiating. If that's not enough, though, not to worry. There's more. The real rottenness of the Love and Respect dynamic is found in its motivations.

Eggerichs repeats ad nauseum throughout the book that love is exclusively the domain of women. Men, however, must have respect. Respect is "blue." Love is "pink." Therefore, love isn't "enough" for men.

Well, whether Dr. Eggerichs likes it or not, it's love that's all over the pages of Scripture, and it's "good enough" for women and for men. (Real love also entails basic respect for every human being as an image bearer of God, as I have said elsewhere). Loving God and loving your neighbor (i.e., your spouse) as yourself are to be the primary motivations in marriage and the whole of life. By the way, this kind of love doesn't look at all like the pale and pasty "greeting card" version of love that Eggerichs is willing to have his readers settle for (see 1 Corinthians 13 if you're in any doubt).

Real love of the godly variety acts without being contingent upon the other person's favorable response (i.e., it's not the "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" deal that Eggerichs advocates). In Love and Respect, the ultimate motivation for showing "love" or "respect" is so that your spouse will give you "respect" or "love" in return. This is done via each spouse engaging in manipulation tactics that capitalize on the other's weaknesses (fragile ego, need for approval).

In order to make this system work, Eggerichs takes for granted that both husband and wife are an exact match for certain male/female pop culture stereotypes. Because of this, his advice reads as if it's aimed at sitcom-style caricatures of men and women, rather than real individuals -- i.e., men are "oafs", "clods"; women are "negative", "touchy", etc. (And if you don't fit the stereotypes, well... you're out of luck. You've probably been brainwashed by Satan's minions, a.k.a. feminists.)

According to Eggerichs, a man should be loving so that his wife will give him respect. Unfortunately, by "respect", he isn't thinking of simple kindness and consideration. No, his idea of respect looks more like flattery, groveling, and a total lack of boundaries. He never explicitly says so, of course, but this is a conclusion one inevitably arrives at as the book progresses (and, in the absence of any clearly stated definition, I think it is a reasonable one).

For instance, husbands have the right not to be criticized or reminded of things they may have forgotten (p. 12). They have the right to be told that their wives admire them -- whether or not this is actually the case (p. 212). They have the right to "call the shots" (p. 220). They have the right to sex whenever they feel like it, or else they will "come under satanic attack" (p. 252). (How's that for a thought to put you "in the mood"?) They have the right to be sure that their wives make less money than they do, so that they never feel financially inadequate (p. 208). (No, I'm not making this up. I almost wish I were.)

Even more horrifyingly, men even have the right to be absolved of blame for extramarital affairs if they aren't getting enough respect (or enough sex): "A man who strays is usually given total blame for his affair, but in many cases he is the victim of temptation that his wife helped bring upon him" (p. 253). (Which reminds me of a joke by egalitarian blogger Tim Fall: "When my right eye causes me to stumble, I tell the ladies to put on more clothes.") Eggerichs quotes the wife of one cheating husband as saying: "She [the other woman] thought he hung the moon. Every remark he made to her was witty; everything he did was perfect. In her eyes he was the most handsome, intelligent, funny man in the world. He needed an ego boost, and she was ready and willing to be that for him" (p.68).

Here's the truly confounding part. In all of this, it never crosses Dr. Eggerichs' mind to question the legitimacy of men's supposed "need" for an ego boost. It never occurs to him to consider that other factors, such as culturally-ingrained notions of machismo and bravado, or even a man's own sinful nature, might be at least partially responsible for such a "need." At the very least, you would expect him to condemn the sin of adultery.

But in Dr. Eggerichs' eyes, such a sin is completely understandable -- acceptable, even, because the man's desire for respect originates with God. Hence, every man's wife should be "admiring, ever-approving" of her husband (p. 17). If she fails to provide him with the "ego boost" that God created him to have, she must bear the consequences, because "husbands are made to be respected, want respect, and expect respect" (p. 8). To paraphrase: husbands are made to have their egos flattered, they want to have their egos flattered, and they should expect to have their egos flattered.

Hmm. Does this sound like a Biblical idea to you? Let's take a look and see.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:3-8)

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (Romans 12:3)

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:12)

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all." (Mark 9:35)

Alright, now let's look at the verses which say that men have a God-given right to expect to be treated like kings.

...Oh, wait. There aren't any!

Seriously, people. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Go read the Gospels. Study the life of Jesus Christ -- the most perfect Man there ever was or ever will be. Ponder His hearts' desire for how His followers are to regard themselves, and how they are to relate to one another. And then come back and tell me if you really, truly believe that God's ultimate goal for men is that they should seek to be respected.

What is "the 'need' for an ego boost", after all? I don't think I would be missing the mark to say that it's pride. Let that sink in for a moment. We are teaching husbands and wives that Pride, one of the seven deadly sins, has been "hardwired" into men by God Himself, and that they have the divinely granted right to expect women to cater to it.

I cannot even begin to express my sadness, my horror, my utter disgust at the havoc this depravity is wreaking on Christ's reputation and in the lives of members of His Body. It is absolutely unconscionable. The proponents of this atrocity have a lot to answer for.

More to come...

07 October 2017

Love and Respect vs. Logic and Reality, Part 1

This is a wife who wants to be loved and respected.
This is a husband who wants to be loved and respected.
This should not be a difficult concept.
"Men need respect; women need love." If you've darkened the door of almost any evangelical church lately, you've probably been blasted with this particularly noxious variety of hot air in sermons, books, Bible studies, seminars, marriage counseling... the propaganda outlets are virtually innumerable. But without a doubt the biggest culprit in the mass swallowing of this tripe is the book Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs. I've entitled this series of posts Love and Respect vs. Logic and Reality because I think both Dr. Eggerichs and his readership could benefit from a healthy dose of the last two.

It's likely most of you are familiar with this book already, so I'll spare you the sordid details, except to briefly note for the sake of context Eggerichs' basic premise: men are hardwired by God to need respect and women are hardwired by God to need love, and this brings much to bear on husband-wife relations in marriage. Frankly, it baffles me why Eggerichs needs 24 chapters and 5 appendices to make this one very simple point. It's also noteworthy that his premise is exactly the same as his conclusion -- a stellar example of circular reasoning.

One minor problem: his premise/conclusion is not borne out either by Scripture or by science. Now, much good material has already been written on both these points. I am not a big fan of "reinventing the wheel", so I would rather send you in the direction of those writings instead of rehashing them myself. Nate Sparks at Sparking Conversation has written some excellent pieces on why Love and Respect is based on poor Biblical interpretation and false "scientific" claims. Kristin Rosser's paraphrase of Ephesians 5:33, which sheds light on what Paul probably meant by "love and respect" is eye-opening as well. Also, this article by Psychology Today cites research calling into question Eggerichs' supposedly self-evident notion that women don't need respect as much as men do.

The first thing that struck me while thumbing through the pages of this book was a conspicuous absence of definitions for the terms that undergird the author's main premise. Love and Respect, ironically, doesn't flesh out the concepts of either love or respect very well. This leaves us with questions that are so obvious we almost feel stupid for asking them, like: What is love? What is respect? How are they the same? How are they different? We're not told, at least not explicitly. It's largely up to the reader to assume that his or her own personal ideas about the subject are the same as Eggerichs'.

Now, an author relying heavily on reader inference is not a bad thing in some genres of writing, such as poetry or parables. But in a book that bills itself as a divinely inspired "secret" formula for an amazing marriage, we have the right to expect things to be a little more clear-cut. If love and respect are inherently gender-specific concepts, I would expect (1) there to be a significant difference between the two, and (2) that the author would explain in detail the nature of this difference and why treating your spouse with both love and respect, irregardless of gender, won't work.

Eggerichs can't do this, nor does he try. In more than a few of the scenarios he cites of a husband feeling disrespected or a wife feeling unloved, you could easily switch the two partners and not gain much insight into any key differences between love and respect (or between men and women, for that matter). For example, he says that his wife has a habit of putting pepper on his eggs even though he has asked her not to. This is "disrespectful" behavior toward her husband. He, on the other hand, has a habit of leaving wet towels on the bed after a shower even though his wife has asked him not to. This is "unloving" behavior toward his wife.

Here's my question: What's inherently "disrespectful" about peppering someone's eggs when they don't want it? What's inherently "unloving" about leaving a wet towel on the bed? Both are inconsiderate behaviors, but I'm asking what, specifically, makes one disrespectful and the other unloving. If the situations were reversed, and the husband was the one peppering the eggs and the wife was the one leaving wet towels on the bed, would that make the husband the disrespectful one and the wife the unloving one? If not, why not?

Here's one that's even better. Eggerichs forgot his wife's birthday one year, and spent the day with his friend instead of with his wife. This was, obviously, an unloving thing to do. When he came home to his wife at the end of the day, she brought to his attention the fact that he had left her at home alone on her birthday. By his own admission, her reminder was gentle and gracious, not accusatory. Yet he felt disrespected: "judged, put down -- and rightly so" (p. 13).

"Rightly so"? Let that sink in for a moment. It was disrespectful of his wife to expect that he would remember her birthday.

If you're confused, so am I. Let's move on.

Eggerichs maintains the male-respect/female-love dichotomy by "proving" through faulty research and cultural stereotypes that men and women are so very, very different and both want very, very different things from their partners. Yet I would argue that as men and women are both human beings and both equally made in the image of God, both are therefore alike in more ways than they are different. I would also bet that if you gave them a chance to tell you what they want, you'd find that men and women don't have such wildly disparate notions of what would make them happy, after all. I'll give you an example of what I mean.

Whilst sifting through my inbox not long ago, I happened upon an old email from my former small group leader. He had cc'd the group on the results of a recent survey of married couples in the church on how they prefer to be shown love and respect in their marriages. I thought the survey was insightful in providing some clues that the needs of husbands and wives are not really so different as we'd like to think. I've reproduced this list below, unedited (so I can't take responsibility for typos or things that don't make sense, of which there are a few).

How to Show Respect to a Husband:
Values decisions and requests when made
Gives importance to things I find important
Speaks well of me to others
Does not contradict me in front of the children
Praises me.
Reciprocates love emotionally
Supports decisions
She allows me to deal with things in my own way without pressure
Purposely seeking to meet my needs without pointing out my faults
To be thoughtful of insecurities and encourages me in those areas

How to show love to the wife:
Values my opinion
Helps with house chores
Gives realistic expectations, hopes ,desires, criticism...
Wants me to grow without candy coating
Shares his heart - trust me with it
Is real with me
Leads me/our family spiritually. I.e bible reading, prayer, washing me through the water of the word
Spends time with me and concentrating on me when he gets home from work when it would be easier (and maybe even more enjoyable :) ) to pop in a movie or read the news online
Makes time for his wife even after a long day at work
Listens well.
Is affectionate through the day - simple things like a text to say, "I love you," etc.
Understands the wife's needs and meet those needs through communication and support.
Goes out of their way to spend time with their wife
Is spontaneous with affection. Affection defined as kind words, touch, and attention.

I want to draw your attention to an interesting overlap between items on the "husband" list and items on the "wife" list:

Husbands: "Values decisions and requests when made"
Wives: "Values my opinion"

Husbands: "Praises me"
Wives: "Is spontaneous with...kind words"

Husbands: "Reciprocates love emotionally"
Wives: "Is affectionate"

Husbands: "Thoughtful of insecurities and encourages me in those areas"
Wives: "Wants me to grow"

Husbands: "Supports decisions"
Wives: "Meet needs through communication and support"

So. Both spouses desire (among other things) validation, verbal affirmation, affection, encouragement, and support. In other words, they both want many of the same basic things. Which brings us back to the question I asked earlier (except this time it's framed in terms of respect rather than disrespect, and love rather than a lack of love): Why -- and how -- do these things constitute respect when done to a husband, and love when done to a wife? And is what husbands want versus what wives want really so different after all?

Answer: they don't, and it isn't. Dr. Eggerichs cannot demonstrate a qualitative difference between the concepts of love and respect, because the truth is that they are intertwined. Common sense and human decency, if not Christian faith, will tell you that true respect is not possible without love and vice versa. Respect (courtesy, consideration, and kindness) is not divorced from love; it is part and parcel of love.

The closest Eggerichs comes to an attempt at differentiating between love and respect in any meaningful way is when he states that it's possible to respect someone without loving them because "You respect your boss. You don't love your boss" (p. 69). Really, Dr. Eggerichs? You're seriously going to compare marital devotion with the kind of obsequious, self-serving "sucking up" that goes on in corporate environments? This is a pretty poor substitute for the real thing, if you ask me. You may dress up the reality in more flowery terms, but the bottom line is, you do what your boss wants because you want to keep your job. Is this what husbands are supposed to want from their wives? Acquiescence to their demands? Obedience so as not to lose their favored position? How sad.

This stunted definition of respect in turn forces us to accept an impoverished definition of love as nothing more than emotional warmth and sentiment. According to Dr. Eggerichs, greeting card companies are proof that this kind of love is what women want, need, and are best at communicating, because so much of their consumer base is female. Also, women are bad at respect because greeting cards talk about love, but not respect: "Women are locked into love. Love is their mother tongue... Sadly, the deepest needs of husbands goes unmet because wives (and the card publishers) are locked into relaying sentiments of love" (p. 49). (Did you catch that? Married men are suffering, and Hallmark is to blame.) What a terrible insult to the souls of women (and men) to equate the kind of sappy drivel found in greeting cards with the love that is supposedly "a woman's deepest need." The God who demonstrated His definition of love by hanging on a cross would have something to say about that, I'm sure.

More to come...

06 October 2017

Home Unsweet Home

A gratuitous picture of Neuschwanstein Castle, just because. I would love to live here.
Just kidding. I don't think I could afford the taxes. Or the cleaning staff.

Some days, my house gets me down. Some days, it just doesn't feel like home.

It feels less like home than my parents' house, which I never liked while I was growing up because I thought it was "boring" (i.e., it was small and didn't have a second story). Now, whenever I go back and visit, I realize just how much I failed to appreciate about that house: The wood stove. The laundry chute cleverly disguised as a pantry cupboard. The root cellar with its many jars of canned pickles, jelly, stewed tomatoes, and dried apples. Dad's study with its thick rug and fireplace and shelves of books. The secret door to the attic.

It feels less like home than my on-campus apartment in college, of which the lower level was partly underground, like a mole's tunnel. I also suspect it wasn't "up to code", judging by how even the short-statured tenants had to walk down the stairs hunched over so as not to bump their heads. The really weird thing about that place was, it didn't have a living room -- just three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen (with no stove, because undergraduate students couldn't be trusted not to burn the place down.) The apartment housed six humans and (depending on the time of year) any number of hairy centipedes that made themselves at home there. They usually stayed put as long as we didn't try to move the couch, which we kept in the kitchen on account of not having a living room. The couch in the kitchen was a little strange at first, but we got used to it. Keeping the TV on the counter next to the sink proved to be somewhat more problematic, especially if someone was washing dishes and not being careful about how much water got splashed around.

It feels less like home than either of the houses I lived in in California, one of which the landlords couldn't be bothered to properly maintain and was slowly being eaten out from under us by termites. This was a shame, because the house itself was rather magnificent. It was large and roomy, with a swimming pool and an upstairs balcony. It also had a fireplace, which we used on cooler days in flagrant disregard of the Los Angeles County Air Quality Management moratorium on residential wood-burning. There was a fig tree and a guava tree and a small fenced-in garden where I hung my hammock. It was, all things considered, a decent place to call home.

Anyway, houses in the south are strange. The nice ones have porches on the ground floor and the upper floor, which is kind of cool, but the not-as-nice ones don't really have much going for them. They're extremely small, tend to be poorly insulated, and usually don't have basements. Basements just don't pan out when one is building on a foundation of mud and clay. Instead, they have a lattice "skirt" around the bottom of the house, with a crawl space underneath. This is essentially useless as living space -- unless, of course, you are a spider, snake, or member of a fire ant colony.

When we first bought our house, several of my out-of-state friends asked me what type of house it was. I wasn't sure how to answer, so I turned to "List of house types" on Wikipedia for help. It wasn't like any type of house I was used to, such as a colonial or a Cape Cod or a gablefront. It wasn't a ranch house -- too square. It wasn't a cottage -- the article specified that cottages are country dwellings. Cabin didn't seem to fit, either. I eliminated categories one by one until I was left with bungalow ("any simple, single story house without a basement") and shack ("a small, usually run down wooden building"). (It narrowly missed being labeled a "lean-to" since it did have walls on all four sides.) I was in an optimistic mood that day, so I decided to go with the "bungalow" definition.

I've never had strong homemaking instincts, but the primitiveness of the place bugs me. There's only so much I can do to make it comfortable. Somehow I feel that this reflects badly on me as a person, though I'm at a loss to say exactly why.

I try not to dwell on the plainness of my dwelling too much, but sometimes, I just can't help it. Like a couple of weeks ago, when my adult Sunday school class was studying John 14:2, where Jesus says "I go to prepare a place for you." Several people noticed that the type of place Jesus said He was preparing seemed to be different depending on which translation of the Bible they were reading. The question was asked, what kind of place is He preparing, exactly? Rooms? Mansions? Apartments? The deliberation went on and on.

Anyway, I'm sitting there, listening to all the old folks fussing over just what kind of digs they can expect to be putting their feet up in when they walk through the pearly gates. Finding out for certain is imminent for some of them, so I suppose I can understand their preoccupation with it. But of course I myself have a long road to go until then, so I'm thinking, who cares? As long as it's not a 720-square foot bungalow/shack in a bad part of downtown, I'll be happy. 

I shouldn't feel this way, I know. I should be grateful for what I have. I should remember that there are lots of places in the world where my house would be considered a mansion. I should be content. I shouldn't be so consumeristic. I should make the best of it. (Once you're on a roll with a list of shoulds, there's literally no place to stop.) 

That said, the less-cynical, better part of me really does wish to grow into a different mindset on matters like these. This story told by Welsh minister Selwyn Hughes captures it well:

While waiting for a train in India, a missionary got into a conversation with a high-caste Indian. "Are you traveling on the next train?" the missionary asked. "No," he replied, "that train has only third-class carriages. It's all right for you, because you are a Christian. Third class doesn't degrade you and first class doesn't exalt you. You are above these distinctions, but I have to observe them."

A huge mansion or tiny shack -- it does not matter either way. Riches cannot exalt me and poverty cannot degrade me. I live above such distinctions. 

Except, I don't. I like to have nice things. I like it when my house doesn't have cracked floor tiles or mildewing drywall. I like to be able to open my fridge without the door bumping the counter. I like having more than two tiny closets.

I like not feeling guilty for liking these things.

It's a constant conundrum. 

03 October 2017

Language Inflation

Inflation. We know it happens to money; that's not exactly news.

I think it happens to other things as well. Like language, for instance. What living in "the information age" means is that we now have a staggering amount of data available to us (and a correspondingly staggering amount of language that accompanies the data to organize and interpret it). We have articles and seminars and presentations and books and blogs and podcasts by the million. But the sheer volume of it all seems to have a cheapening effect on language and how it affects people. Excess of something leads to a decrease in value -- everyone has something to say, and nobody's listening anymore, because one voice among billions is just so much empty noise.

It's not just an issue of quantity, though. I have a theory (without firsthand evidence, mind you) that, once upon a time, human language used to possess some sort of intrinsic power that it no longer has, at least not to the degree it once did. If you've ever read the Biblical stories of famous blessings and curses, you might have some idea of what I'm getting at.

In Old Testament times, speaking a blessing over someone had great effect. The very words themselves were imbued with tremendous authority and life-giving (or life-destroying) power, as with Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27:1-29. There was only one blessing to be given, and it was powerful: Once spoken, it could not be revoked or amended, and whatever was said would certainly come true. Such was also the case with cursing, which was why Balaam's assignment to curse Israel (and the fact that he ended up blessing them instead) was such a big deal (Numbers 22:1-35).

Now, when we “bless” someone, all we're really doing is saying nice things about them -- wishing them well. Or even just acknowledging the fact that they sneezed (though you wouldn't hear any complaints from me if that tradition fell by the wayside). Likewise, when we "curse", we're only saying a four letter word. It's not an especially classy way to talk, but our "curse" doesn't have any real power to inflict physical harm on anyone. (Thank goodness!) Someone's spoken blessings and curses are nothing more than expressions of either goodwill or ill will -- or, in some cases, annoyance that there so many idiots on the road at rush hour.

Why this loss of power and efficacy in language? Was it just some special circumstance for Bible times? I don't know for sure. Considering how prolifically we speak, write, and publish these days, maybe it's not an entirely bad thing. Imagine how much potential for damage there would be! It does strike me as a little sad, though, because we have lost that amazing capacity for blessing (and being blessed), as well.

There is one notable exception. "Help yourself to the coffee" always counts as a blessing! (And it always has positive results.)

01 October 2017

A Tradition that Needs to Die

For those of you out there with blood pressure that's in a low enough range that you wouldn't mind bringing it up a few notches, I have just the thing: the disingenuous idioms Christians have latched onto in order to avoid speaking words associated with death and dying.

Death is the “doorway to the new life.” Funerals are “home-going celebrations.” Dying is "going home to be with the Lord" or "being ushered into His presence" or "receiving our promotion to glory." (That last one is so ridiculous, I wish I'd thought of it first.)

These substitute terms supposedly reflect our knowledge that death is not simply the expiration of the body, it is something more. We are privy to inside information. Everyone else thinks death is a tragedy, but not us Christians—we know how things really are! We get to feel smug and superior to those heathens who say that their loved one has "departed" or "passed away."

This is wishful thinking at best and hypocritical at worst. If we truly have no reason to fear death (as we claim), then to say that someone has "died" should not bother us in the least. But it obviously does, because the Sunday School vocabulary we use in its place means we’re avoiding the d-word, just like everybody else.

And what's the real difference, anyway, between saying that someone has "gone to glory" instead of saying they've "passed on"? Both of these expressions are idiomatic -- sincere attempts to reckon with a painful reality. The only difference is that one is Christianized; the other is not. Neither one alters the facts of the situation in any way, but one sure sounds an awful lot more like some sort of transcendental exercise in denial than the other one does.

Some of us who vote conservative at election time like to poke fun at those on the opposing side for insisting on "politically correct terminology." The proponents of it say this is because they don't want others to be offended. We say that's lame -- but if that's so, then it's speakers of "Christianese" who must accept the prize for lameness. We have to have our preferred terminology because it's our very own selves that we're afraid of offending!

Now I know that some people like to use the phrase “with the Lord” because the Apostle Paul did (2 Corinthians 5:8). When he said it, I bet it didn't come off so trite, so extraneous, so passe as it usually does when people say it now. In fact, I'm sure it didn't. Paul wrote to at least one audience -- possibly more -- who, at that time, did not possess complete assurance as to the reality of heaven; this is why he prefaced one of his messages about the afterlife with "I do not want you to be ignorant" (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Nowadays, ignorance is not our problem. Heaven is old news to us, so we tend to use it more as a dismissal of feelings (our own or others') rather than as a statement of fact. It is true as a statement of fact, but boy, does it make for a lousy attempt at comfort.

There has to be a better way. Perhaps we should resurrect the Old Testament ways of putting it: "He slept with his fathers" and "He was gathered to his people."

No? ...Well, I'll keep thinking.