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!

06 October 2018

10 Things That Make No Sense

1. Scented trash bags. Garbage + Artificial Chemical Scents = Garbage that's several notches further down on the scale of Foul-Smelling Things. 

2. Bathroom air fresheners, for generally the same reasons as #1. Adding fake Lilacs™ to poo smell doesn't make the poo smell better. It makes it worse. Contrary to the manufacturer's claims, bathroom air freshener doesn't fight odor. It doesn't bother with a fight. No, it immediately surrenders and joins the enemy's side.

3. Highway tolls. All those millions of dollars collected every day, day after day after day. Where is all this money going? My rattled teeth and bent car axles would like to hazard a guess: not road repair.

4. Making the bed. Why bother? I'm only going to sleep in it again tonight. It's called saving time!

5. Fabric softener. It works by breaking down the fibers in your clothes, essentially destroying them. I don't know about you, but I happen to like most of the clothes I own, and I don't want them ruined. Then again, I do understand the appeal of stepping out of the shower and being able to wrap your body with a towel that doesn't feel like a potato sack.

6. Antibacterial hand soap. It's antibacterial, which means it kills bacteria. You know what most of the germs being passed from person to person in your average social setting are? Viruses. Yep, being doused in Purell doesn't bother those cold and flu bugs one little bit.

7. Colds. I don't know why, in our modern advanced society, we are still afflicted with the common cold every winter (and spring and fall and even summer). We've eliminated smallpox and scarlet fever, but we haven't come up with anything to make sore throats and sinus congestion a thing of the past? I've never donated to finding a cure for cancer, but man, if they ever start working on finding a cure for the common cold... here, take my money.

8. Armpit hair. It serves literally no purpose except to make you look bad, smell bad, and feel gross. Not to mention, how is deodorant supposed to work on a forest of unruly hair?

9. Fake maple syrup. It's not that I don't know why they use artificially-flavored corn syrup instead of the real stuff: It's less expensive, and its availability isn't dependent on a few limited sources. But the same is true of counterfeit money, and we consider that a crime. Just sayin'.

10. The news media. Even faker than fake maple syrup, and about ten times harder to swallow!

04 October 2018

Obituary of a Square Peg in a Round Hole

Sharon Mindy Spender Gay, born in New Haven, CT on October 27, 1987 to John and Ruth Spender, was lost forever to the immortal realm of pink clouds and harp music on October 4, 2018. Her untimely demise resulted from a combination of factors, including prolonged exposure to the known brain-atrophying effects of South Carolina's Lowcountry region, as well as intense withdrawal from levels of social and intellectual stimulation necessary to sustain life.

Sharon was a lifelong lover of art, commercial explosives, and cynicism. Her sole accomplishments were a faked high school diploma and two extraneous university degrees in obscure fields of study. Before her death, she was last seen searching for her life's purpose, which to our knowledge was never located.

No memorial service will be held. In keeping with her wishes not to take up as much space in death as she did in life, the deceased's remains are to be cremated. The ashes will be kept until they're lost or the family gets tired of them, whichever comes first. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Fund for Helping Churches Get Better Tasting Coffee.

Sharon is survived by approximately seven billion people, including her husband of three years, Wesley H. Gay, and a 50-pound tornado named Sheba. She will be greatly missed by her friends, family, and the coffee industry.

21 September 2018

Meditations for Winter

Lately I've been thinking a bit about how often I hear Christians say, "You can't live the Christian life in your own strength," and then they proceed to give you advice on how to do exactly that. Somehow -- don't ask me how -- this phenomenon has become immune to being questioned. We're supposed to accept statements like these uncritically; if we don't, it's just evidence of our hardness of heart:

"If you don't hear God speaking, it's because you're not listening."

"If God feels far away, it's because you moved away from Him."

"If you want God to use you in great ways, all you have to do is be willing/available."

"If God doesn't seem to be at work in your life, it's because you're sinning, so repent."

"If your prayer life feels frustrating, be more disciplined in the habit."

"If it's not working, you're just not trying hard enough."

Notice what all of the above have in common: they're attempts to "fix" parts of our spiritual lives on our own. If things are going wrong for us, it's either our fault or God's fault, we reason -- and we know it can't be God's fault, so that leaves only one other option. We need to try harder, do better, give more, pray more, serve more, have more faith, fill in the blank...

I tried for a long time to wrap my head around how this is not "living in your own strength" -- until I finally gave up. I didn't just give up because I was too tired to try anymore; I gave up because the evidence for trying was no longer compelling.

I found too many stories in the Bible of people to whom God spoke even when they weren't listening (Abram, Gideon, young Samuel, Elijah, Saul of Tarsus), as well as people who waited for God to speak or intervene in their situation, yet they heard nothing for a long time (Job, Sarah, Hannah). There were stories of people whom God used in a particular way at a particular time for His own reasons -- their willingness or lack thereof didn't have much to do with it (Jacob, Moses, Balaam, Jonah, Lazarus). And there were stories of people who felt forgotten by God even though they weren't living in sin (David, Mary and Martha, John the Baptist, virtually all of the Old Testament prophets).

It seems that some of us are in good company.

And some of us are still persuaded that we can hear God speak or know our life's purpose or have this or that spiritual experience if we just set our mind to it or believe hard enough. "According to your faith be it unto you," we echo the words of Jesus to the blind men in Matthew 9, forgetting that these men were actually standing in front of Jesus Himself at the time, and He had already made up His mind about what He was going to do for them. But it's all the same, we figure -- where there's a will, there's a way.

No matter what, we're in the driver's seat.

I'll venture a guess as to how this happens so easily, and bear in mind this isn't a comprehensive answer. I wonder if our Western -- in this case, American -- culture provides a conducive environment for fostering this way of thinking. The American ethos, after all, contains a healthy dose of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, every-man-for-himself philosophy. In many parts of the world, fate and karma are the values people live by, but not so much in ours. "Reach for the stars" is our rallying cry. If we want it, we'll do it, have it, take it, whatever. America loves underdogs and "rags to riches" stories and people who make great comebacks from terrible circumstances: Even when the deck is stacked against us, we will overcome. We will be victorious. We will find a way.

And I don't think that's a bad thing, per se. Proactivity and innovation and refusing to settle for the status quo are all great qualities. You could argue that that can-do spirit is the very reason for our country's existence. We have done some great things because we believed we could.

But I do wonder if some of it hasn't seeped in to our Christianity and colored the way we approach our spiritual journeys. I wonder if it encourages us to mistakenly identify delay as defeat. Accepting that a situation is outside of our immediate control isn't something we're proud to do.

We criticize the "Name it and claim it" philosophy when it comes to health, wealth, and prosperity, but we apply that same idea to matters of faith. We have quick, tidy answers that don't take into account all the other possible (highly varied and individual) reasons for our frustrations: Maybe prayer isn't working for us anymore, not because we just aren't disciplined enough, but because it's time for a different approach to praying. Maybe God has stopped speaking to us or working with us in the way that we're accustomed to because He's preparing us to experience a different way of relating. Maybe we're sad all the time and the answer isn't that we just need to meditate on Scripture more. Maybe, just maybe, we need a good antidepressant (speaking from experience there).

Sometimes the problem isn't that we need to stop doing "the wrong thing" or start doing "the right thing" in order to turn things around.

Sometimes, we're just waiting on the passage of time.

This is par for the course almost everywhere else in the visible world. Time passing is what happens while we wait for trees to grow new leaves in the spring, for flower petals to unfold, for fruit to ripen, for seeds to mature to the point of readiness. "To everything there is a season", and all that. The point is, we can't force any of these things to happen. Will we cause a tree to grow faster by scolding it or telling it what it should look like at this point in its life? No, there's really nothing we can do but wait. Meanwhile, the sun and the rain and the dividing cells and the microscopic organisms in the soil do their work.

All factors which are out of our sight and completely out of our control.

Note also that growth isn't a once-and-done deal. The tree expands and branches out and yields its fruit and multiplies while the warm season lasts. Winter always comes around again, and the active production of new growth pauses for awhile. It's a time for resting and recouping. This can be a disheartening time for someone who doesn't know or can't remember what spring looks like. Wintertime looks (and feels) a lot like death.

But there's always life underneath, and the tree enters each wintertime a little bigger, a little stronger than it was the last time.

I don't think it's totally unforeseen that "growth" is God's metaphor of choice for how we progress in the Christian life. (I hate to even say "Christian life" because all of life is life, and our relationship to God isn't somehow separate from everything else) We cycle. We have our springs, our summers, our autumns and winters and we take something from each one. "Wintertime" is usually the most feared time of all, because it's almost always the darkest, the coldest, and the least comfortable. It's a time where we aren't actively flourishing and "producing." Not surprisingly, it's a time that tends to invite criticism from ignorant onlookers, who don't see what's going on below the surface. Nevertheless, wintertime is necessary. The summertime wouldn't be what it is if there were no winter.

And God does not hold it against us, the time that we take to grow and process. He doesn't become alarmed during those periods when we don't have much to offer -- just as we don't become alarmed at the shedding of leaves from a tree in anticipation of winter. It's all part of the plan. It takes time.

The idea that we don't control our spiritual growth in the same manner and with the same methods that we use to control our diets or our budgets (hard work, discipline, the "right" mindset, etc.) isn't a popular one. It doesn't preach well. It doesn't sell well. And it doesn't do much to make us feel like we have everything under control.

But it's what we'll always find at the end of ourselves and all our trying -- however we get there, whenever that may be.

08 September 2018

Does Your Umbrella Leak?

How many of you have seen Bill Gothard's infamous "Umbrella of Protection" graphic before?

If you haven't, count yourself lucky. If you have, you're in good company. Either way, I want to offer some of my thoughts on this illustration, since it is so familiar to many of us who come from complementarian church backgrounds.

According to Bill Gothard (who was somewhat of a household name to fundamentalist homeschoolers of the 1970's and beyond), the umbrellas represent layers of "spiritual protection":

God-given authorities can be considered “umbrellas of protection.” By honoring and submitting to authorities, you will receive the privileges of their protection, direction, and accountability. If you resist their instructions and move out from their jurisdictional care, you forfeit your place under their protection and face life’s challenges and temptations on your own. (original emphasis)

I'll grant that "protection, direction, and accountability" are aspects of God's grace that -- more often than not -- come to us indirectly through human means. That fact notwithstanding, I have several issues with Bill Gothard's umbrellas.

For one thing, his picture shows a total lack of understanding, not only of theology, but of how umbrellas work! I mean, how many umbrellas does a person need to shelter them from the rain? One. Who in their right mind uses three of them stacked on top of each other?

You only need one umbrella, people. 

This isn't hard. Even preschoolers know this.

It should go without saying, but if you're using more than one umbrella at a time to protect you from a rain shower, then one or more of them are unnecessary -- or broken -- and need to be scrapped.

Things get interesting when we take this oh-so-elementary knowledge of how umbrellas are supposed work, and apply it here. We're left with this question: Which umbrella is the most important -- the one we couldn't do without? (I hope you'll say "Christ's", because that's the right answer!) Which naturally brings us to our next question:

Why isn't Christ's umbrella big enough to cover everyone -- the husband, the wife, and the children -- without them needing to be (or have) separate umbrellas? Why does God need multiple layers of protection beneath Him? Does His umbrella leak? What is the husband protecting his wife from that Christ alone is unable or unwilling to? The implications of the answers to any of these questions are scary, to say the least.

In fact, it almost looks like the husband is protecting the wife from God, and the wife is protecting the children from the husband, which makes for a pretty dysfunctional family dynamic if you look at it that way.

Worst of all, though, is the fact that the wife is separated -- by her husband -- from direct access to God. God's protection and provision for her is mediated through a man, who is (obviously) a fallible human being. Meanwhile, the benefits the husband receives from God come directly from God Himself. It's sort of like Moses speaking to God on behalf of the Israelites -- except, that system of relating to God was supposed to be dispensed with after Jesus died on the cross (the book of Hebrews is my recommended reading material on that topic).

Funny, isn't it, that some of us believe God would tear through the veil of the temple so we could have access to all that He offers us, meanwhile leaving intact "umbrellas" between us and Himself. There's something kinda wrong with that idea, I think.

And yet I still believed it for a long, long time. By the time I got married, I'd thoroughly internalized the "umbrella hierarchy" and all that it implied. It was precisely this thought -- the thought of someone else standing between me in my relationship to God -- that nearly destroyed me in the first year of my marriage. Coming to a realization on these points is ultimately what started me down the path to egalitarianism:

If being married means Christ can no longer protect me and provide for me Himself, then I would have been better off never getting married. 

If being married places a barrier between God and myself, then I am better off single.

And we're not even delving into how misguided and damaging is the assumption that "protecting and providing" are only (or primarily) the husband's responsibility, or that caring for children and "managing the home" is only (or primarily) the wife's responsibility. That's a whole 'nother ball of wax right there!

Having said all of this, I don't believe it's enough merely to point out problems with the "bad" model of authority. We need to replace it with a visual of a better one. Thankfully, someone has already done this for us (I don't know who the artist is, or I'd credit them):

Notice that there's only one umbrella, and it belongs (as it should) to Jesus.

Male and female leaders stand side by side as equals, both fully covered by Jesus and neither depending on the other for what He alone provides.

Note as well that the children stand alongside the adults, not underneath them. God's protection and blessing covers them as well as their parents.

Now, if anyone ever tells you you need "the umbrella of protection", you know which one to take with you!

26 August 2018

Why I Love Mushrooms

Mushrooms are great. I don't know why fruits and vegetables get all the hype. If you ask me, the best thing nature's got going right now are its fungi.

I've been on vacation in Connecticut the past few days (it seems strange to admit I'm vacationing at a place that is basically home, but there you have it). Our weather so far hasn't exactly been what you'd call fair: pouring rain for days on end, and a river that's flooding its banks.

Unlike the rest of us, the mushrooms love this weather. They're the bright spots of beauty on an otherwise drab and dreary backdrop. I never realized just how many of them there are, and how quickly they grow. Unlike flowers and vegetables that make you wait for weeks and months, mushrooms appear literally overnight. They're like the express delivery men of the plant world.

Plus, they're versatile. Many of us love art, and who doesn't love food? -- mushrooms are both. You can eat them (well, some of them!), and you sure can't beat them for variety of colors, shapes, and textures. We've got big smooth pinkish ones and little orange crinkly ones; ones that look like sponges and ones that look like the pages of a book.

We've got the Bracket Fungi, which grow on trees. They're also called Artists' Fungi because when they're alive and full of moisture you can scratch on the white surface to "draw" on it. I used to have a big Bracket fungus that I broke off from a tree and drew a nature scene on. I probably still have it somewhere, unless the bugs have eaten it up (a drawback you don't have with other art surfaces, which is why I ultimately still prefer canvas over fungus).

I also love mushrooms' names. My favorites so far are Old Man of the Woods, Elegant Stinkhorn, and Orange Jelly. Then there are Dung-Loving Bird's Nests -- although the "dung loving" part really tells you all you need to know. So, too, do Angel of Death and Destroying Angel, both of which ever-so-delicately hint at the consequences of incorporating them into one's soup or stirfry.

But as I mentioned before, some wild mushrooms are edible. In my area, perhaps more of them are edible than I'd realized prior to consulting a field guide. For example, the King Bolete is not only edible, it's supposedly a gourmet delicacy. It's a shame I'm not a mushroom expert, and therefore I can't be certain if the specimans now scattered hither and yon in the yard are Boletes or some sinister poisonous lookalike. They look delicious, and they smell just like good portobellos or shiitakes. As much as I'd love to find out for myself, I probably won't. Sigh. The stakes are a little too high if I'm wrong!

13 August 2018

August Holidays

Sheba celebrating Work Like A Dog Day.

My wall calendar tells me there are no holidays during the month of August. Google disagrees, and would like to offer you the following suggestions for making the most of your summer and your waistline.

Aug. 1: Girlfriends Day. Also, Raspberry Cream Pie Day. If you love your girlfriend, make her a raspberry pie. Just do it. Seriously. (Speaking as a former girlfriend who never got a raspberry pie on Raspberry Cream Pie Day.)

Aug. 2: Coloring Book Day and Ice Cream Sandwich Day. Both of these sound fabulous to me. Thank goodness coloring books for adults are trendy now! (Not that it would stop me if they weren't.)

Aug. 3: Grab Some Nuts Day. This isn't specific enough for me. I need more details. What kind of nuts should I be trying to grab: Almonds? Cashews? Crazy family members?

Aug. 4: It's National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day and National Mustard Day. (I don't recommend celebrating both, at least not at the same time.)

Aug. 5: Work Like A Dog Day. August 5 fell on a Sunday this year, so it didn't seem appropos to take today's suggested activity literally. Well, unless you "work" the way my dog does, which is not at all (see photo above for proof).

Aug. 6: Wiggle Your Toes Day. A slow and painless and mostly ineffectual way to burn off some of the raspberry pie, ice cream sandwiches, and cookies we've eaten thus far. But hey, it can't do any harm.

Aug. 7: Raspberries N' Cream Day. More raspberries. Why not!

Aug. 8: Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor's Porch Day. It's not the most neighborly thing to do, but it could help alleviate some of your garden's overcrowding problems. Unless, of course, your neighbor is also trying to do the same thing. YMMV.

Aug. 9: Today is Book Lover's Day, and your snack of choice is rice pudding for National Rice Pudding Day. But eat carefully -- books and pudding don't get along well together, if they get too close to each other.

Aug. 10: National Lazy Day. This coincides with National Shapewear Day, interestingly enough. I don't know about you, but lazy days do not find me in shapewear!

Aug. 11: Son's and Daughter's Day. So! All this time I thought the only family-related holidays were Mother's Day and Father's Day. I feel duped. Not that mothers and fathers don't deserve to be celebrated, of course, but not all of us are mothers or fathers. However, all of us are sons or daughters, so no one gets left out of this one. Too bad Son's and Daughter's Day isn't more well known -- clearly, Hallmark hasn't figured out a way to capitalize on it yet.

Aug. 12: Julienne Fries Day. I say they need a day for curly fries, since those are amazing and (for some reason) have all but disappeared.

Aug. 13: Left-Handers Day. Thank goodness, they need a day of their own. Left-handers need at least one day of the year when no one sees them eating or writing or doing some other activity with their left hand and asks, "Hey! are you left-handed!?" No, I'm just doing this hoping you would ask!

Aug. 14: Financial Awareness Day. In the event that you're not a responsible adult who is aware of their finances on the other 364 days of the year, today is the day to mend your careless ways. You can even pour over your budget spreadsheets with a creamsicle for National Creamsicle Day.

Aug. 15: National Relaxation Day. Consider this your second chance, in case you didn't get enough relaxation on National Lazy Day.

Aug. 16: National Roller Coaster Day. Is it a coincidence that this is also National Airborne Day? Because that's exactly what I'm afraid will become of me when I get on a roller coaster.

Aug. 17: National I LOVE My Feet Day! Please make sure your feet are stink-free so that everyone else can love them, too...

Aug. 18: Mail Order Catalog Day. Please, oh, please, is there some way we all could get mail order catalogs on only one day of the year, instead of multiple times per week? (I'm mostly looking at you, Oriental Trading Company.)

Aug. 19: Potato Day. Although I'm pretty sure most of us eat potatoes every day, in some form or another.

Aug. 20: Chocolate Pecan Pie Day. Because nothing says "dog days of summer" like heating up the oven to bake a pie, right? Even so, I'd totally eat pecan pie in the summertime. Too bad pecans don't go on sale until around Thanksgiving.

Aug. 21: Brazilian Blowout Day. I had to look this up to see what it was. I mean, it sounds kind of scary if you don't know. Apparently, it's a special type of hair treatment that's supposed to eliminate frizz. You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true, though, right?

Aug. 22: Today is Pecan Torte Day, in case you didn't get your fill of pecans the day before yesterday.

Aug. 23: Cheap Flight Day. Somehow I doubt the airline companies will have gotten the memo on this one, so if that turns out to be the case you can always console yourself with some cake for the occasion of National Sponge Cake Day.

Aug. 24: It's National Peach Pie Day and National Waffle Day. At this point I almost hope there's a National Diet Day coming up, ya know?

Aug. 25: But today is not that day, because it's Banana Split Day! (It's also Kiss and Make Up Day, in case that sounds better to you, but I doubt it. How does a kiss compare to a banana split? It doesn't.)

Aug. 26: Women's Equality Day. This should be every day of the year, ya know what I'm sayin'? (So should National Dog Day.)

Aug. 27: National Just Because Day. I get the distinct impression we're running out of special things for each day.

Aug. 28: Race Your Mouse Day. Assuming you have one or more mice, that is. In which case a cat or two might be worthwhile investment.

Aug. 29: Chop Suey Day. Chop Suey is great, but I think it's supposed to be made of leftovers, and well... At this point, the only leftovers we have on hand are the sweets and junk food we've been eating all month.

Aug. 30: Holistic Pet Day. What is a holistic pet? Can someone tell me, please? Or does it mean that this is the day to take my dog to get acupuncture or something? I hope not, because I can only see that ending one way: disaster.

Aug. 31: It's Diatomaceous Earth Day! I know, I can hardly stand the excitement either.

31 July 2018

From the Girl Who Didn't Go to Church

One morning last weekend, I was shopping at Bi-Lo for ice and Gatorade. I asked the man refilling the ice machine if I could step around him to retrieve a couple bags of ice.

"Shore thang, sweetheart," he replied. (This is one aspect of southern culture that still gives me pause on a regular basis: being called sweetheart and darling and baby by people I don't know.) He watched as I lugged the bags of ice into my grocery cart, and then remarked: "Gaw nah bo?"

"Er... sorry, what was that?"

He repeated: "Gaw nah bo?"

This was embarrassing. "I'm sorry, sir, I still don't think I caught what you said."

Again, louder this time: "GAW NAH BO?"

Then he nodded at the ice in the cart, and by some combination of context, intuition, and sheer luck I discerned that he was asking: Are you going on a boat? He added: "It's a beautiful day."

And then I realized. It was Sunday, and I wasn't in church, and he figured it must be because I was going sailing, and I must be buying ice for the drinks I'd be having while sailing. Because that's what you do in a waterfront community in the South on a Sunday morning -- if you're not in church, then you're out on the water.

I shook my head regretfully. "I wish! Actually, I'm ripping out the insulation from under my house today." I needed ice and drinks for everyone who was helping, because it was hot as blazes under there, and we were on a tight deadline before selling the house, so we were working as fast as we could. Fun times, yeah.

He threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, GAWSH! That is AWFUL! I am SO sorry for you, sweetheart!"

"Me too," I assured him, before making a hasty exit.

A vague sense of uneasiness followed me all the way home. This was because
(1.) It was Sunday, and I was skipping church, but
(2.) for various reasons -- none of which may be disclosed here -- I knew my presence at church would be of no benefit to myself or anyone else, and besides,
(3.) I no longer believed I was obligated to just appear at church and fill a seat anyway. But old habits die hard. "Sunday = church" is deeply, deeply ingrained in me.

I've presented my reasons for thinking this way many times. Right about now is when someone breaks out Hebrews 10:25: "Do not neglect meeting together." I wholeheartedly agree. And yet... personal difficulties in present circumstances aside, I don't believe our modern church service bears much resemblance to the "meeting together" Hebrews 10:25 calls us to. I don't believe most of us are truly fulfilling that command even if we're in attendance at our local church every week without fail.

I believe that being the church (which is what Scripture actually teaches, as opposed to merely going to church) requires us to live in real, everyday community with one another. It's much more relational, much less program-driven. In some ways, it actually requires more commitment than our current way of doing things. It's up close and personal and doesn't fit neatly into a schedule with established start and end times. It's not obsessed with who's in charge and who must submit to whom. It has no room for fake smiles and facades and sweeping the real issues of life under the rug. It's usually not endorsed by church leadership. It's not what we're accustomed to.

And so it's out of the question for most of us.

I shared all of this with a friend once. He got very upset with me. "But we have to go to church. Church is where we worship the Lord!"

Of course we're able to worship the Lord anywhere, anytime. But for the sake of argument, let's run with this idea: Church is where we worship the Lord, so it's our duty to be there.

Well, in that case, it seems we had better know what worship actually is if we're going to prioritize it. We need to know if there's more to the whole idea than just following along with the printed order of service... don't we?

“Our English word means worthship,’ denoting the worthiness of an individual to receive special honor in accordance with that worth... Worship is pure adoration, the lifting up of the redeemed spirit toward God in contemplation of His holy perfection.”

(That's from Baker's Dictionary of Theology.)

I look at what goes on during the average Sunday service and I can't help but wonder: When are we worshiping -- in the true sense of the word? I'm not even thinking of the huge, rock-n-roll concert megachurches or the prosperity gospel churches, who are obvious candidates for critique. I'm talking about our very average, ordinary, evangelical churches. The ones we dutifully show up at every Sunday and never bother to question what we're actually doing, and why.

I say it's time we start asking those questions.

What part of this church service is for the Lord? What, exactly, is He getting out of it?

I am dead serious. Think through this with me.

Are we worshiping during the singing time? It seems pretty common these days to equate "worship" with "music." This is no doubt why we have a worship leader, who in reality is more of a song leader. As helpful as a song leader's role can be, I don't believe he or she leads "the lifting up the of the redeemed spirit toward God in contemplation of His holy perfection." I believe the Holy Spirit is the only one who can do that.

On a less lofty note, I personally run into problems trying to worship during the singing time anyway. I just can't get all the questions off my mind: Why are we looking at a screen? Can't anybody in this church read music? Wouldn't this sound better if everyone knew their part and could sing in harmony? Why are we repeating this line for the 26th time? Is anyone else realizing that some of these lyrics are creepy and the rest just plain don't make sense?

How much longer until this is over?

(I know I'm not the only one thinking some of these things.)

Are we worshiping during the 17.8 seconds of "turn around and greet your neighbor" time? Call me a cynic, but I highly doubt that anything other than "Let's get this over with" is on the mind of either you or the stranger you just swapped germs with via brotherly handshake. (Thank goodness we don't give holy kisses anymore.)

Are we worshiping during the sermon? If we were to think of the Sunday morning service like a multi-course meal, the sermon would, without a doubt, be the main entree. It's pretty much the reason we're there. If you're present for every other event of the morning, but you miss the sermon, then you've "missed church."

So, seeing as how the sermon occupies the place of supreme importance in terms of time and emphasis, I'd ask how much worship does God get then? Well, probably not much. That block of time, you see, is for us. It's when we're getting spiritually fed learning about how to be better Christians. In a best-case scenario, we get some helpful, Biblically-based points to mull over and try to apply during the week. In a worst-case scenario, we get berated for our failure to measure up to a standard that even Jesus Himself likely wouldn't hold us to.

It's a mixed bag.

Are we worshiping during the maybe-ten-minute Communion service that (sometimes) gets tacked on to the end of the sermon? We probably come closer here than anywhere else. But most of the time, we stop short. If you'll notice, we have very little to say during this time about Christ Himself, or even about what He's done. We don't have time for that. We have a formula. We read 1 Corinthians 11:28: "Let a man examine himself", and we talk about the tragedy of our sin, and how it separates us from God, and how if we have anything between us and the Lord, we had better confess it now, or else.

And it's not that sin isn't horrible and doesn't need to be confessed; it's that we give so little attention to God's goodness compared with how much we give to our own badness. Especially when you consider that Jesus didn't say, "Do this in remembrance of your sin." He said, "Do this in remembrance of Me."

Are we worshiping during the offertory? If the answer is yes, and the worth of your wor$hip, I mean worship, is determined by how much you put in the plate, then does that mean that worship is a privileged reserved for the economically advantaged? Or, to put it another way, are we not worshiping if we take a pass on donating to the church's new sound system because our car needs new brakes, or because we won't be able to afford to see a doctor if we get sick? Is it possible Jesus just might come in and tip over our tables? I wonder.

Are we worshiping during the plug for getting involved in more ministries and programs and outreaches and service projects? Or are we just getting more over-scheduled, more obligated, more guilt-ridden, and more burnt out? "Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you..." Wait, wait, that sounds familiar. Who said that again? I could swear I've heard this somewhere before. I just can't remember where. Or why. Man, I'm tired.

I pose these questions facetiously, perhaps, though not flippantly. These are earnest wonderings, all of them, and I am open to earnest answers. Okay, except maybe for the "greet your neighbor" one. I'm pretty sure we could ditch that, oh, yesterday -- and neither Jesus nor we would be any worse off for it!

18 July 2018

On God's Will and Spousal Disagreement

Consider, if you will, a popular bit of Christian advice often given to married couples:

"God won't call you to anything your spouse isn't on board with. Until you and your spouse are on the same page about something, it isn't the right decision for you and your family."

This sounds reasonable enough on the face of it. Certainly, we need mutuality in our decision-making. But this statement is sneaking in several dubious assumptions that many people never pick up on.

For one thing, it assumes that the spouse who disagrees has some kind of insight into God's will that the first spouse doesn't have. It also assumes that disagreement is a sign that God isn't calling. Further, it implies that mutual agreement is not only a necessary, but a sufficient condition for moving ahead with something. (Let's not ask Ananias and Sapphira how that last one worked out for them.)

There is, of course, a grain of truth. God doesn't want us to push forward with something in disregard of our spouse's feelings about it. That isn't loving the way He loves, and it evidences a failure to consider the other person's interests above our own. A spouse's hesitation about something is most certainly an indication that we have to do some more thinking and praying and working through things before we move ahead.

However. Spousal disagreement is not the final word on whether a conviction is from God or not.

Consider this scenario: Mr. and Mrs. Joe and Mary Schmoe live in Tampa, Florida. Joe Schmoe wants to move to New York for a ministry opportunity at a new church. His wife, Mary, wants to stay in their current location because the kids are doing well in school there.

Of course, it's entirely possible that Mary will be told to just go along with her husband's idea despite her misgivings, and that God will bless her for her submission. This happens all the time in the church, and it's a travesty.

However, it's equally likely that well-meaning friends will tell Joe, "God wouldn't call you to move to do ministry unless your wife was in full agreement. And she's not at peace about moving, so God isn't calling you to move."

Here's the problem. Mary disagrees with moving. Joe disagrees with not moving. If God wouldn't call someone to something his or her spouse isn't on board with, and both spouses want opposite things, how do we know which "side" God is on?

Imagine the statement above directed at Mary instead of Joe: "God wouldn't call you to stay where you are unless your husband was in full agreement. And he's not at peace about staying, so God isn't calling you to stay."

Well, now what are we supposed to think? "God's will" changes depending on whomever the statement is addressed to! So what can it tell us about which course of action God wants us to take? Absolutely nothing. It also paralyzes us: If either partner has to assume that the other's reluctance automatically means an idea is outside of God's will, then they are (and will remain) at an impasse.

But in this case, Joe and Mary have to do something. "You do your thing and I'll do mine" won't work here -- they have to either stay or move, and the kids will have to come with them. Either choice involves the whole family and will have a huge impact on them all. So, what should they do?

A good start would be for both of them to dig deeper -- first with themselves, and then with each other -- about their respective reasons for wanting to go or stay. (Just learning how to do this step well will probably take a lot of time and patience.) They should, of course, be praying. It could be that God is speaking to both of them, and one or both aren't hearing Him clearly. They might stay, and get involved with ministry opportunities locally in Tampa. Or they might go, and find a good school for the kids in New York. They could wait until the kids have graduated from school, and then move. Or they might go somewhere else altogether. Any of these options might be something God would bless, but neither Joe nor Mary will ever get that from simply assuming that "lack of agreement = lack of calling."

The big takeaway from all this, I think, is that where claims about God's will are concerned, tread carefully. There's almost always more than meets the eye.

05 July 2018

When Being Egal Simplifies Your Life

1. You can use whatever gifts you have. Your designated areas of service and ministry are no longer dictated by "the bits between your legs." You no longer have to consider yourself automatically disqualified, by virtue of your womanhood, from leadership positions or pursuing a full-time career. You're free to explore and develop whatever gifts, abilities, and opportunities you sense God has granted you and is calling you to make use of.

Don't be taken aback when others fail to embrace your new convictions with open arms, however. In fact, since the vast majority of today's churches don't affirm women's equality, you can fully expect to be outnumbered when you take your stand. And yet "If God is for us, who can be against us?" still holds true, and may mean more to you now than it ever has before.

2. You're responsible for your decisions now. Your life choices no longer hang on other people being in the right place at the right time. You don't have to hope a man comes along and marries you so that you can "fulfill your God-given role as wife and homemaker." You can have children (or not) because you want them (or not), not because you feel obligated to "be fruitful and multiply." You don't have to place yourself under a man's authority -- you answer to no one but God. You don't have to cede control to others, and then feel helpless when they don't hold up their end of things.

3. You can know exactly what you have control over and what you don't. This concept is otherwise known as "boundaries", i.e., knowing what falls within your area of responsibility and what doesn't (and then refusing to shoulder the burden of others' responsibilities). Complementarianism encourages women either to take up tasks that don't belong to them (such as picking up after their husbands), or else engage in manipulation tactics to get their way. (If you've ever heard "The husband is the head, but the wife is the neck", or "Respect him so that he'll love you", or "Give him sex so that he'll give you affection", then you know exactly what I'm talking about!) Egalitarianism says you can only control yourself and your own choices, and that you're fully within your rights to expect others to do the same.

4. You worry less. There are far fewer "what ifs" about those aspects of life that you can't control (which are a lot). Here are some worries egalitarianism allows you to cross off your list: (1) how you can experience "God's best plan for your life" if you're not married, (2) or if something happens to your husband, (3) or if you don't have children, (4) or if you don't fit the traditional housewife stereotype, (5) or if your husband earns less money than you do. You no longer have to wonder how you'll get by if your husband isn't "being a spiritual leader", or if you're supposed to just shut up and take it if he's being abusive or unfaithful. (The answer to that is no, by the way.)

5. You can finally take God out of the box. Since you no longer see yourself as confined to a rigid, limiting box, it will become harder to treat God this way as well (and that's a wonderful thing). You may even find Him to be a completely different person than you had previously thought. The change will be a surprise, a relief, a breath of fresh air.

6. You become more open to self-care. Complementarianism conditions us to be suspicious of -- and sometimes downright hostile to -- the idea of self-care. We're taught that the need for regular rest and replenishment is selfish, unreasonable, indulging our flesh, a sign that we aren't fully surrendered to God, or any number of other hurtful and untrue statements. Ironic, when you consider that one of the greatest commandments is "Love your neighbor as yourself": It's pretty darn hard to do that when you have no idea how to love yourself!

7. You're more compassionate. This is the one I find the most amazing when looking at my own life. You know the verse that says, "Blessed are the merciful"? Well, that is not me. Not by nature. I'm ashamed to say that more than once when I've encountered someone in a difficult place, my first thought has been something along the lines of: Well, if they had (or hadn't) done X, they wouldn't have gotten themselves into this mess in the first place!

I still have a long way to go, but I have more compassion for them now than I used to. Compassion for people who have believed lies for way too long -- because I was one of those people. Compassion for those who are silenced and marginalized. Compassion for the ones who don't "fit the mold." Because far too many of us know what it's like to be despised, not for anything we've done, but just for who we are.

22 June 2018

When Being Egal Complicates Your Life

Women who "convert" from complementarianism to egalitarianism sometimes get a bum rap. They get accused of rebelling, of giving in to worldly feminist influences, of taking the easy way out. What the naysayers usually don't realize is that completely reframing your worldview (and the choices you make based on it) is anything but easy:

1. You have to actually decide what to do with your life. This isn't really an issue for the guys, who are never, ever told that marriage and parenthood is their highest calling. No, this burden is placed squarely on the shoulders of women. As a result, they tend to sell themselves short in multiple areas of life, including career, education, and personal development. Because why spend all that money on a degree if you're not planning to be anything other than a stay at home mom? What's the use of acquiring marketable skills when you'll never need to earn money? (Or so the thinking goes.)

As an egalitarian, you get to take reclaim all of that lost territory. But it won't be easy, especially if a lot of water has passed under the bridge in the meantime.

2. You're responsible for decisions now. If, up to this point, you've taken refuge in deferring to your husband as "the head of the home", guess what -- you can't do that anymore.

You have to fully embrace adult responsibilities, such as paying bills and managing finances. And no, this isn't compatible with the "Biblical advice" that gets drummed into our heads from an early age. "It's not the woman's 'role' to be the breadwinner!" Well, ladies and gents, the real world has a rude awakening in store. If your family should fall behind on rent, mortgage, or utilities, the company to whom you cut the monthly check doesn't care one whit about a woman's alleged Biblical role. They want their money. And, quite frankly, it makes no difference to them what's between the legs of the person who pays it!

Along similar lines...

3. You realize your husband can't be your retirement plan. Egalitarianism brings you face to face with the realization that leaving your future financial stability up to chance isn't the wisest idea you ever had. Not when death, disability, illness, and job loss are such common occurrences.

4. You'll have to relearn marriage and parenting, if applicable. It can be freeing to know that you're no longer enslaved to whatever you were told your "role" is, but depending on what your spouse's views are, this can also cause some friction. If you have children, you may find that the patriarchal, authoritarian "spare the rod and spoil the child" approach no longer works for you (not that it probably did before, either).

5. You might have a harder time reading the Bible. Not actually reading the Bible per se (although that may happen too), but finding a reliable translation that isn't patriarchally biased. (Click here to read An Egalitarian Review of Bible Translations.) You will have to identify and re-program a lot of old, faulty thinking patterns where your approach to Scripture is concerned. You may find that an alarming amount of what you previously took for granted is now up for re-evaluation.

6. You'll probably find yourself on your faith community's "naughty list." Be prepared for people to pray over you -- specifically, that you'll cease and desist your headstrong rebellion against "God's design/creation order." Learn how to deal gracefully with having your salvation questioned. Be prepared to have to uproot and find a new church.

7. Denial is no longer an option. You will see injustice in places you never realized before. You'll go through times when you feel enraged, grieved, and powerless to help yourself or others. You'll have to face up to the fact that maybe you were raised with some incredibly disordered ways of thinking and relating to God, to others, and to yourself. That years -- perhaps decades -- of your life and countless opportunities are lost to you forever because of this. This may be the most difficult of all to accept.

8. You have to get really good at letting things go and trusting. You don't have a "spiritual covering" between you and God anymore. No one can tell you exactly what to do and what not to do in order to "stay within God's perfect will." You're responsible to hear His voice for yourself, and then... "whatever He says to you, do it" (John 2:5). Even if your pastor doesn't agree. Even everybody else thinks you're crazy.

This is really only scratching the surface. Life is crowded with paradoxes, and here's yet another one: The truth hurts, like salt in a wound sometimes. And yet... only Truth can set you free.

09 June 2018

Traditions that Need to Go Out of Style: Church Clothing Legalism

Thankfully, condemnation of others' choices in churchgoing attire is becoming less and less fashionable all the time. But we've still got a long way to go.

One particular Sunday during my college days, I wore dress slacks -- nice ones, I might add -- to church. During the coffee hour, an older gentleman cast a disapproving eye up and down my personage before remarking with no small amount of disdain that in his day, respectable young ladies wouldn't dare be seen wearing pants on the Lord's Day. This aroused my ire and the following Sunday I not only wore pants; I wore jeans. He never spoke to me again after that. The older generation in that church considered the donning of denim in God's house to be the ultimate sacrilege, on par with getting drunk on Communion wine.

There was little doubt that business wear was the default for acceptable church clothing -- not only in that church, but in many others as well. The standard line issued in defense of this principle was: "You should dress as formally to meet God as you would if you were going to meet the President."

And I always thought to myself: What an insult to compare God to the President -- any president! Yet the fans of this dubious analogy seemed to think they were paying God some sort of compliment by equating His glorious, majestic omnipresence to that of an elected politician.

I'd also point out that God sees us all the time -- not only at church, but even when we're... well, engaged in activities we wouldn't want other humans to observe. Besides, when you consider in what state we enter the world, it sort of suggests a different perspective on what kind of clothing -- or lack thereof -- God deems acceptable. (I am not advocating for nudity, in case anyone needs an explicit disclaimer.)

And, well, then there's that whole "Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" thing. You know.

Yet the conservative Christian prejudice against casual clothing, particularly jeans, persists. Nor is it limited to Sunday mornings. When I was in Bible college, for example, we weren't allowed to wear jeans or "T-shirts with writing on them" (i.e., logos) to classes or daily chapel services. Women were allowed to wear pants as long as they weren't made of denim (a big step up from the days when the rule was skirts and dresses only). Khakis and corduroys were okay. Strangely enough, even blue pants that looked like jeans but weren't made of denim were okay. Denim skirts were, of course, a thumbs-up. You might even be able to get away with denim jeans in a non-traditional color, such as black, brown, or white. But blue denim jeans? They were of the devil. They would lead you into sin.

The student services committee told us that the no-jeans rule was in place simply because the senior board of administrators wished it so (and assuredly the wishes of certain wealthy benefactors came into play somewhere). They wanted to project to the world an image of godly young people who dressed respectably. We were training for ministry, after all -- and besides, pastors always wore a suit and tie. Didn't they?

Well, that idea kind of fell by the wayside after several pastors showed up to speak at chapel services wearing jeans. They'd look out at the crowd of students, all clad in their respectable khakis and corduroys, and say: "Why am I the only one wearing jeans here? You people need to get with the times."

Ah, well. And thus we bid adieu to the bygone era of Pastors, Suits & Ties. But all good things must come to an end. As of 2010, students at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School are permitted to compromise their morals wear blue denim jeans to class. I still don't know where "T-shirts with writing on them" stand, though.

28 May 2018

Moreover, When Ye Fast...

...or, as in my case, when you don't.

I had a new occasion to ponder my lack of self-denial in this area upon receiving some news from my home church in Connecticut. They've held periods of collective fasting and prayer for quite some time now about a particularly serious issue affecting several of their families. Recently, their prayers were answered in spectacular fashion and they decided it was apropos to celebrate with a feast, much the same way the father of the prodigal son celebrated his homecoming.

My first thought upon hearing of this was, What a great idea! My second thought was that if I still attended there, I'm not sure I'd feel free to participate since I most likely wouldn't have taken part in the fast. No fasting, no feasting -- isn't that how it works? Well, I hope not. But I'm not sure.

I've always prided myself on having a workable, commonsense philosophy for... well, pretty much everything. More and more often, though, I'm realizing that this was perhaps the pride that goes before a fall. I don't really have an answer for everything. I don't have one for discontentment. And, I realized, I don't have one for the "to fast or not to fast" question, either.

I'm familiar with other people's answers, of course. But they all seem sort of hollow to me. Here's my trouble with them:

Claim #1: Jesus said "When you fast", not "If you fast", so we know He wants fasting to be one of the spiritual disciplines we practice regularly. Not that I'm attempting to rationalize (I totally am), but this seems to me an awful lot is hanging on one small dependent clause: when you fast. If you think about it, the "when" is ambiguous: Is it a command? or an acknowledgment of a preexisting reality? Is it possible that fasting was already a part of the audience's normal practice and so Jesus' saying "When you fast" meant "Since I know this is something you're doing because you choose to, here's how to go about it"? If He had meant to prescribe fasting as normative, might He not have said so outright? (I haven't studied this at all, so this is an off-the-top-of-my-head speculation.)

In either case, right about now is when I pull out Ecclesiastes 2:24: "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God." Because hey, if we're going to proof text, two can play that game, right?

Claim #2: A "fast" doesn't necessarily have to be a fast from food. You've heard it before. "Oh, don't worry; you don't have to fast from food! You can fast from anything! How about fasting from music/TV/the computer/social media?"

As someone who desperately hates going without food, I sort of understand the appeal of this approach. But it still seems lame to me. I mean, entertainment technology -- in the variety of forms we have it now -- was basically nonexistent just thirty to fifty years ago. Yet somehow or other, humanity has managed to make it this far without any of it. So try as I might, I can't manage to make myself feel magnanimous for denying myself of something that isn't necessary for survival. Besides -- if what they say is true about how TV and smartphones are making us dumber -- I'd be better off without it anyway!

Claim #3: Fasting gets your mind off distractions so you can concentrate totally on seeking God. I must be doing it wrong, because this doesn't work for me. When I go without food for more than 6-8 hours, I get weak and shaky, have headaches, and feel sick to my stomach. All of this tends to be... well, distracting. I find it harder, not easier, to pray while in this condition. In fact, if I really wanted to be able to concentrate on praying, I would eat first so that I don't have to feel like I'm coming down with the flu!

I suspect I have some blood sugar issues contributing to this problem, but no matter. Knowing that the early Christians were torn apart by lions for their faith makes me feel less confident in begging off on skipping a few meals because I get dizzy. Could a doctor's note exempt me from a "spiritual discipline" anyway? I'm not sure. All I know for sure is, I feel guilty whenever I think about it. So naturally, I try not to think about it.

(As a side note, if the main objective of fasting is really to eliminate distractions, I guess this would lend some credibility to the idea of "fasting" from technology.)

Now, I will say that the preparation of food and clean-up afterward are absolutely a distraction! If I could eliminate those from my life, of course I'd have more time for prayer! So there, it's settled. I shall order takeout and eat off paper plates every day.

Claim #4: Fasting shows God that you're serious about what you're asking for. If you probe into this one a little bit, the reasoning behind it is unsettling to say the least.

First of all, the assumption being sneaked in with "showing God I'm serious" is that God is lacking information that He's depending on me to supply. That's problem number one. Then we have to ask how does fasting show God I'm serious? Well, because I'm giving up something I want. Giving up something I want means I'm suffering, even if only in a small way. And suffering means that God will take me more seriously than He normally would, because He'll be impressed that I'm voluntarily making myself uncomfortable on His behalf. I wouldn't be doing this otherwise, you know.

None of this is actually said aloud, of course. But I do still think this reasoning is going on just beneath the surface of our consciousness. We view God's intervention as something we earn through self-affliction -- not something freely received as grace.

So this idea doesn't sit well with me. In fact, it smacks of the "prophets of Baal" approach, and you remember what they did in an effort to get their god's attention. ("Look at me, God! Look at how much I'm suffering! Now do You care enough to listen to me?")

Can some things only be accomplished by fasting? I suppose I'd have to say yes -- after all, there is Jesus' statement about certain varieties of demons that only come out by prayer and fasting (Matt. 17:21). But I can't speak to any personal experience with this. I haven't tried to perform any exorcisms lately, and the chthonic netherworld represents a whole sphere of knowledge with which I am utterly unfamiliar.

Now, I could be wrong about any or all of this. In fact, I feel fairly certain that I am. It wouldn't surprise me in the least.

I'll have to think about it some more.

Over lunch, of course.