30 January 2018

Bethany

Sooner or later, most people I meet and get into conversation with ask me if I have any siblings. I tell them I have a brother.

"Oh, that's nice. Is he older or younger than you?"

I tell them he is older than me by almost twelve years.

They say, "Wow, that's quite a gap! You must have been like an only child growing up."

I usually don't tell them I had a sister. I see no reason to do so. It would be a needless downer in what's usually an upbeat and positive conversation. Once or twice I've accidentally dropped a casual reference to bossy big sisters, or to wearing hand-me-downs. And then they look at me, puzzled, and ask me what would I know about bossy sisters, or how could I have worn hand-me-downs if I only had a brother?

Well, I would like to set the record straight today, two days after what would have been her thirty-seventh birthday, that I did indeed have a sister. Her name was Bethany Grace. She died at age 26 of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the last in a long succession of debilitating illnesses.

The irony was that Beth had always been mortally afraid of dying young, and she took all the measures she possibly could that, in her mind, mitigated that risk. She refused to eat sugar. She wouldn't eat meat or dairy, because the body has difficulty digesting them. She wouldn't use perfume or burn candles, because they contained harmful artificial fragrances. She didn't want to be around microwaves and radio towers, because of the invisible waves that could interfere with brain activity. She was positively terrified of boxed cereal, because the plastic packaging was treated with a chemical preservative that had been linked in some studies to nervous system disorders.

And on and on it went. I think all of her many phobias were at least partially driven by the fact that she lived in constant pain, and also in the hope that her diligent avoidance of certain things might bring relief, somehow.

Her other greatest fear was people.

Not that she was a social recluse or anything like that. In fact she was much more extroverted than either Jon or myself, and was also quite generous. She filled a whole bunch of Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes every year and volunteered at the homeschool co-op and knitted blankets for new babies in the church, among other things. The strange part of it was, she was never happy while doing any of this. Instead she was constantly filled with fear, obligation, and guilt, sometimes to the point of hysteria.

She was always frustrated when the words and actions and reactions of other people weren't exactly what she thought they should be (which, of course, they hardly ever were). She also fretted constantly about what others might be thinking of her: Were they offended by what she said? Did they look at her that way because they were angry, or were they trying to make her angry? Did they make that comment just to annoy her? Were they judging her for the way she looked? Would they like this gift that she got for them, or would they brush it off? But what would they think if she didn't give them anything at all? Any grievance, either real or imagined, was a cause for stress, irritation, and worry that quickly descended into paranoia and panic attacks fueled by utterly irrational thinking.

Of course, she feared God most of all, and not in the good way. In her mind, God was a heartless taskmaster, always demanding more, never satisfied with anything. Everything bad that happened to her was His punishment. This was an unfortunate perspective indeed, because plenty of bad things happened -- from Lyme disease that was misdiagnosed for over a decade, to severe anxiety and psychotic symptoms, to -- finally -- cancer.

On spring break my freshman year of college, while my classmates were spending time at the beach or on missions trips, I was sitting with Beth in the hospital while she went through her first rounds of chemo. On one of those days, she told me she couldn't stop thinking about the verse in Proverbs that says: "A broken spirit dries the bones" (17:22). Then she said: "I've been a miserable person my whole life, and now this verse has literally come true for me." She said "literally" because leukemia, while being a blood cancer, gets its start from affected bone marrow. It is, in a very real sense, a sickness of the bones.

That statement gave me pause. I wasn't ready to wholeheartedly concur with that idea, that her cancer was the direct result of her unhappiness -- I simply couldn't say for sure. None of us could. Nevertheless, in her words, I heard a wake-up call: Don't give in to misery. Be happy as much as you can, even when it feels like the odds are completely against you. Enjoy good things. Assume the best about others, and most importantly, about God.

The biggest irony of all was that Beth started living (and actually enjoying) her life once it was determined that she had less than six months left. It was almost like she had decided that she might as well start living, because now, she had nothing left to lose.

By then it was summer, and I was home from school on my long break. I did the usual fun summertime stuff and she joined me on almost all of it, as much as her pain levels would allow. We went swimming in the river on hot days. We watched the stars at night. We would work in the garden together or go for walks in the woods or sit in the grass and look for four leaf clovers without her freaking out about getting dirty or getting tick bites or a thousand other what-ifs. She relaxed most of her strict rules about what she wouldn't eat: Whenever I made coffee or whipped up a milkshake or scooped out a bowl of ice cream, I'd make two: one for me and one for her. That was a completely new thing! When she was first diagnosed with cancer, I prayed for a miracle -- and seeing her eating ice cream, I knew I had gotten it. It was just different than the one I'd asked for.

Best of all, she finally seemed to be at peace with others and with God. Of course, the two of us still had our spats about various ills right to the bitter end -- I guess some of that's to be expected between sisters -- but mostly, she was able to disentangle herself from the suspicion that the whole world was out to get her. For those last few months, she actually seemed to be enjoying herself. I was happy for her, but the happiness was shadowed with regret for the fact that she wasn't ready to live her life until it was almost over.

This is the real reason why I'm not a fan of the "live like it was your last day" advice, having been in the close company of someone who actually is in their last days. Especially someone as young as Beth, who, had she been dealt a different hand and perhaps made a few different choices, could have had a lot going for her. "Live like it was your last day" is often touted as the way to avoid regrets in life, but I think it can leave you with more regrets if you're not careful: Once you reach the end of your time, you might very well realize that you haven't actually been living at all; you've just been anticipating death. (They aren't the same thing, needless to say.)

I think we should take the "last day" part out of the equation. Whatever gifts, whatever people, whatever time God has given you, you should enjoy and make the most of because those gifts are a blessing and because you have them right now; not because you're thinking about the day you'll lose them. That day will come eventually, but believe me, you have much more to lose in the meantime if you live with death as your focus. Or, even worse, if you wait until you actually are dying before you appreciate those gifts, those people, those days and hours and years.

There's a better way, I think, and it's found in that verse that says "Let all that you do be done in love." Love. That's what makes anything worth doing. That's, you know, actually good advice to follow. Not because you'll die someday, but because you're alive today.

Don't live like it was your last day. Just live.

26 January 2018

Plagued by Quiet Time, Part 2

There's that candle again, and now we have some very creepy spectacles too...

Continued from yesterday...

Assumption 2: God will not bless you unless you do your quiet time.

This one is kind of a half truth. If you have the Bible available to you in your language (there are still millions and millions of people on the planet who don't!), then you have a tremendous blessing waiting for you to receive it. If you never pick it up and read it with an open mind, then it is true that one of the main conduits of God's grace is blocked to you, for as long as you ignore it.

However, what Scripture reading is not -- but is often implied to be -- is a way to earn God's blessings; i.e., God is obligated to bless you today if you "did your quiet time" this morning, but if you didn't, then all bets are off. This is yet another way in which we tend to treat God as a Santa Claus figure, making a list and checking it twice: He sees you when you're sleeping; He knows when you're awake... He knows if you've done your quiet time, so do it for goodness' sake... 

The cure for this is to know that time spent with God is meant to be relational, not transactional. He doesn't dispense His gifts the way Santa Claus does, as a payment in return for good behavior. If He did, then we would all be disqualified: Even our very best still isn't good enough to earn God's favor, if such a thing were earn-able. Thankfully, we get to have it free for the asking.

Assumption 3: A chapter a day keeps the devil away.

I know people who say that when they have their quiet time in the morning, it fortifies them against the devil. They have a great outlook on the day, and other people's petty grievances don't faze them. Even those small vexations that usually crop up in a typical day never seem to materialize. Or perhaps things are going wrong, but they can float above all such worldly cares in a state of spiritual bliss, unheeding and unbothered, because they're full of the Joy of the Lord and of Quiet Time.

I don't have a theological rebuttal to this one; I just have my personal experience. Or rather, my lack of personal experience. I hate to admit it, but my morning quiet time doesn't have much bearing at all on what kind of day I have. If I get a headache or a flat tire or burn my dinner, well, chances are those things would have happened to me regardless. I still get frustrated with people. I still have bad moods, bad days, bad whatevers. But I am young and uninitiated in the ways of spiritual giants, so it's quite possible this is because I'm doing it all wrong. Whatever "it all" is.

Assumption 4: If you don't have quiet time, you're missing out on the only way to know Jesus.

I'm not sure this one is always true, either. Otherwise we wouldn't know so many Christians who are militantly strict about observing quiet time, but whose character and general demeanor are bad advertising -- i.e., they don't show you what the God of the Bible is really like. These people are missing something, obviously, or perhaps I should say they are missing Someone. Confusing an activity designed to bring you closer to a Person with that Person Himself seems like it should be an easy and obvious pitfall to avoid. But in fact, it's a mistake with a lengthy history attached, as Jesus is on record as saying over 2,000 years ago: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf." (John 5:39) It is possible to be extremely devoted to Scripture but miss getting to know the One whom the Scripture is all about. I think this can happen very easily in making too much of quiet time for its own sake.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

In the interest of not having yesterday's and today's posts be completely negative, I feel I should take a break from telling you what hasn't worked for me in the Quiet Time arena, and tell you what has. Here are my suggestions -- and do, please, take them as such.

Suggestion 1: Do spend quality time with God.

I'm not by any means the first to say this, but your friendship with God, just like any other, requires quality time and close proximity in order to flourish. Hopefully, it's not too irreverent if I suggest approaching that relationship as you would a relationship with any good friend (aside from the fact that you don't worship your other friends):

Talk to God whenever you think of it (this may be harder than it sounds, as sometimes the "out of sight, out of mind" thing happens when trying to relate to someone you can't see). Learn to read the Bible as a story -- a good and true story that lets you in on how your closest friend thinks and what He likes and doesn't like. Just sitting and listening is always good too, or sometimes I talk to Him about what I'm reading (not that I always -- or even usually -- hear something in response, but somehow I think He appreciates it).

Suggestion 2: Find other ways to connect.

One of the paradoxes about God is that although He's more perfect than we can ever hope to be, He's usually not as hard on us as we are on ourselves. I find great relief in this. Quite frankly, there are times when -- dare I say it without incurring the wrath of the Quiet Timers -- the traditional Bible-and-prayer method of connecting with God seems impossible for one reason or another. When that's the case, doing something different for awhile can really help. I like the suggestions on this list by Kimberlee Stokes. "Listen", "Observe", and "Enjoy Nature" particularly resonate with me.

This is one occasion where media -- movies and radio shows and what have you -- can be to your advantage, to get you thinking. I know a lot of people like Bible movies like the Jesus Film, but for me, if there's anything graphic in there, I'll have nightmares. So I tend to steer clear of those. I'm more auditory anyway, so I prefer "listenable" activities over "watchable" ones. Adventures in Odyssey is, of course, my favorite. They do Bible stories really well, and their Life of Christ episodes are especially moving. There's just something about hearing and picturing the scenes and the people in them and how it all happened. Sure, they're not historically accurate in all the technical aspects (the fact that the characters speak English, for one), but they remind me that Jesus was (is) a real person, with a real personality, inhabiting real time and real space. (You wouldn't think I'd need to be reminded of such a thing, except that... I do. The real Jesus sometimes gets lost in my devotionals and commentaries and concordances!)

25 January 2018

Plagued by Quiet Time, Part 1

Is it more Godly if you light a candle?

Ah, the Quiet Time -- also known as "daily devotions", "time with God", and "personal Bible study." It's supposed to be one of the great blessings of the Christian life. I've chosen to title this post "Plagued by Quiet Time", because -- ironically -- it oftentimes feels more like a curse than a blessing.

Incidentally, I somewhat dislike the term "quiet time." It's an innocent phrase loaded with pious connotations, so that I'm left with no convenient way to refer to a literal quiet time, a stretch of several minutes or hours in which noise is absent. If I were to go to the library or for a walk alone on a nature trail, to me, that is "quiet time." If I were planning to read and study my Bible, well, I could easily specify that.

I also admit to having negative childhood associations attached to "quiet time." When I was young, parents, youth leaders, and Sunday School teachers would ask: "Did you have your quiet time?" This would strike the fear of unfulfilled obligations into our hearts, similar to Santa Claus asking, "Have you been a good girl/boy this year?" And if we had not been faithfully checking off the quiet time box (we usually hadn't), we would fidget and squirm and promise to do better. After all, we were told, how could we expect God to bless us if we weren't consistent in our quiet time?

I was pondering this recently, and it occurred to me that "quiet time" is yet another one of those areas of the Christian life where we tend to let a confused mixture of personal assumptions and others' expectations be our guide. Not all of those assumptions may be wrong, of course, but I do think they deserve to be unpacked and examined. (At least, I'm not completely confident that they're wrong. I just know they either haven't worked for me, or they've left me with too many answers that don't seem quite satisfactory. Perhaps I'm not the only one.)

Assumption 1: You must have your quiet time in the morning in order for it to "work."

This point is almost unanimously agreed upon among today's Christians. Not only must you have quiet time every day, it must be in the early hours of the day: before you go to school/work, or -- even better -- before sunrise. (Of course, there are those who say it's okay to have quiet time on lunch break or before bed, but they're definitely outliers.)

"God's mercies are new every morning," we quote, with emphasis on the morning. What we don't say, but unconsciously infer, is that His mercies are old and worn out by bedtime. God's grace is like a parking meter; it expires after so many hours. But this is an assumption on our part, and an erroneous one at that. God is just as ready and willing to bless in the late evening hours as He is in the morning (Psalm 127:2).

There's also a view that says quiet time in the morning is the right way to go because we need to expect a word from God for each day that we can carry with us throughout that day. Going to sleep is like hitting the "reset" button, and when we wake up, we need a fresh word from the Lord, because yesterday's word was for yesterday. This is one of those ideas that I really can't say is "wrong" -- I don't have much personal experience with it, for sure. But I will point out that God isn't on the same waking/sleeping schedule we are. The word that He spoke yesterday can be just as relevant today. (Incidentally, there aren't always hard lines for everybody between "yesterday" and "today" -- just ask anyone who struggles with insomnia!)

Then there's the popular view of one's day as a performance or marathon of sorts for which mental, emotional, and spiritual energy is needed, and Scripture is the "food" that provides such energy. I definitely won't oppose that idea, but I will add that food eaten in the afternoon and evening can be just as nourishing as food eaten in the morning. If we're going to draw exact parallels between physical and spiritual food, we'll have to admit that eating consistently and healthfully is ultimately more important than what hour of the day we eat.

A. The Psalms talk about seeking God in the morning.

Indeed they do. They also talk about seeking God in the evening. In fact, both times of day are mentioned frequently:

            Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. (1:2)

O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch. (5:3)

Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he will hear my voice. (55:17)

But I will sing of your might; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been a fortress for me and a refuge in the day of my distress. (59:16)

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; (63:5-6)

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. (77:2)

I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit: (77:6)

O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry. (88:1-2)

But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. (88:13)

I rise before dawn and cry for help; I put my hope in your words. My eyes are awake before each watch of the night, that I may meditate on your promise. (119:147-148)

Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. (143:18)

Given the sheer variety of verses that talk about praying and meditating in both morning and evening, I think we can safely assume that the writer of Psalms is not trying to dictate a particular time of day to communicate with God. Instead, I believe he is highlighting the fact that we should be seeking Him constantly, all day long.

B. You should have quiet time in the morning in order to give God your best.

Smuggled in here is the assumption that first is synonymous with best; i.e., the first hours of the day are always the best ones. It's true that in the Old Testament, the "first fruits" of harvest were considered to be the best, and they were supposed to be reserved as an offering to God. Yet these days, when we're talking about time, the first hours of the day may not always be the best hours. There are various reasons why this may be the case, from health issues to night shift jobs and everything in between.

The biggest potential pitfall, in my opinion, is that slavish adherence to "the morning" tends to foster compartmentalized thinking. It's very easy to regard that hour (or half hour, or fifteen minutes) after we get out of bed as "God's time", and the other 23 hours as "our time" to do with as we please: Good, now I've checked quiet time off my list; I can get on with my actual life...

Does that mean falling into this mindset is inevitable? Not at all. It's just that being legalistic about certain times of day makes it that much easier. At least, that's been my experience. Maybe it's just me.

Continued tomorrow...

24 January 2018

Easiest Ever Chocolate Pudding

I learned about this from the wife of one of my grad school classmates. She's from Indonesia and said this is the way they do chocolate pudding there. After tasting it, I don't think I'd care if I never had it the American way again.

All you need is:

1 ripe avocado
Hershey's chocolate syrup
Milk

Put it all in the blender, and whip it up.

That's all, folks!

I can't give you exact measurements for this, because there really aren't any. You have to play a bit with amounts to get the consistency and chocolatey-ness that you like. I recommend at least 1-2 tbsp chocolate syrup and about 1/4 - 1/2 cup milk. (Make sure you add the milk a little at a time. You don't want to overdo it, or you will be drinking your pudding through a straw rather than eating it with a spoon!)

I didn't have chocolate syrup on hand, so I substituted Nutella. (Can't go wrong there, right?) The chocolate flavor of Nutella is a little less concentrated than chocolate syrup, though, so if you decide to use it, you're going to need a little more to cover up the avocado taste. Three heaping spoonfuls or so should be good. (Hopefully, you're not worrying about calories if you're making this.)

It is so good. Seriously. And it's healthy! Well, not after you add Nutella, I guess. But avocados are good for you, so there's that.



23 January 2018

Traditions That Need to Go Out of Style: Thank You Notes

Thank you notes. Were they foisted upon us by greeting card companies, or is there someone else I should blame?

I have nothing against thank you notes themselves, just the social compunction to write them. Most of the time, I still dutifully snail mail my "thank you's" when somebody gives me a gift. I guess it's a holdover from my more traditional days. But if this point of etiquette were to join those that have already fallen by the wayside, you won't hear a word of complaint from me. I don't think I myself have ever given somebody a gift and then been offended when I didn't get a thank you note, but I know plenty of people who have. And I'm wondering, why? It's really not that big a deal. If you're the giver, you're (hopefully) giving because it's more blessed to give than to receive, not to get a thank you. (You already know my views on feeling entitled to appreciation!) Not to mention -- if you're against telling lies -- how do you say thank you for a gift you hate, or already have three of, or are planning to return or give away? Awkward...

There's been somewhat of a trend in recent years toward digital thank you's -- ecards and whatnot -- but lots of people are still of the opinion that if you don't put a stamp on your expression of gratitude and mail it, then it doesn't really mean anything. Of course, I don't see the sense in this. In my opinion, it's not worth the time and postage to write and mail something that's just going to get glanced at and then tossed out immediately. It's not like the other person is going to keep it in their scrapbook forever or something. Well, maybe they will; who knows. People are strange.

The thank you note tradition is old and tired and suffers fatally from lack of originality, unless you're willing to invest some serious craftiness and/or brain power in being creative. Most of us, needless to say, are not. After you've said the obligatory "Dear (Their Name), thank you for the _______. It was so thoughtful of you", there just isn't that much left to say. This goes double if you don't know the person very well (Hello, wedding thank you notes!). By the way, if I had the wedding thank you note fiasco scenario to do over again, I would follow this piece of oh-so refreshingly commonsense advice by Bailey Steger. Why doesn't this occur to more of us, more often? Seriously.

(Helpful hint: Buy the smallest thank you note cards you can find. The recipients will think you just like cute, tiny cards, but you'll know it's really so you won't have to try to fill up vast stretches of white space with gratitude platitudes.)

A better alternative to the thank you note, I think, is to actually let the giver see you using and enjoying your gift, if possible. (Of course, if they live far away and they send you something by mail, a quick email or text to let them know of its safe arrival is probably courteous.) Even better, make them something. I personally have painted pictures for people who have given me paints and paintbrushes, or made desserts for people who have given me baking supplies. Stuff like that. But only if you have the time and you're so inclined. I think what makes an expression of gratitude "mean something" is when it comes from the heart -- not whether or not it goes through the Post Office!

21 January 2018

How Not to be Weird



Sorry, I can't actually give you a comprehensive guide on the subject. This is something each person has to figure out for themselves, through the exercise of poor judgment and the resultant embarrassing moment(s). I can, however, give you one guaranteed way not to be weird, from my own experience.

If you ever hear the song "Seasons of Love" from Rent, and you think that "measure a year in cups of coffee" sounds like a great idea, well, it probably isn't.

The gist of the song is that there are many ways to quantify 365 days' worth of activity in an average human life (daylights, midnights, sunsets, inches, miles, and cups of coffee are named), but the conclusion of it all is that "seasons of love" is the ultimate indicator of a year well-lived. A nice thought, if a bit nebulous. I didn't have the foggiest idea how one goes about measuring a year in seasons of love (still don't), but measuring in cups of coffee... ah, now there was something I could do. Being the javaphile that I am, this struck me as a splendid idea. So, I kept a tally on my calendar of how many cups o' joe I drank, every day, for a whole year.  The final count: 1,407 cups.

This was all well and good until the following summer, when I started college. On the morning of my first class -- psychology, as luck would have it -- the professor said, "We're going to go around the room and each person tell us your name, where you're from, and something interesting about yourself." (What the real purpose of this was, I don't know. Maybe so he'd have an idea of how many textbook cases of Abnormal Psychology 101 were warming the seats of his classroom.)

He wouldn't take no for an answer, either. If he deemed what someone said as insufficiently compelling, they'd have to sit there and squirm until they could come up with something that met his satisfaction.

"My name is Jeffrey Wyczowski, and I'm from Reno, Navada..."

"And what's something interesting you can tell us about yourself?"

"Um, well... I have... a ferret..."

"That's not interesting. Give us something else."

"I scored the winning goal in my high school's soccer championship last year?"

"You say that like it's a question. Is that your interesting thing? Want to tell us something else?"

"..."

This was a shy person's nightmare. General Psychology was by far the largest freshman class on campus; clearly this exercise was going to take some time. I was down near the bottom of the list with the S's, so I did have awhile to think of what I was going to say. Not that it did me much good. When my turn came, I said, hesitantly, "My name is Sharon, I'm from Connecticut, and, um" -- oh crap, oh crap, what do I say -- "last year, I drank 1,407 cups of coffee!"

Most of the class had tuned out and started talking amongst themselves after their turn had passed, but I guess they were listening after all, because when I said "1,407 cups of coffee", boy, did that room ever get quiet. It happened in a snap, like someone had lifted the needle off the record player. The professor fixed me with a pondering sort of gaze. I figured he was trying to decide whether I was being a smart aleck, when in fact, he was probably going through his mental catalog of various and sundry disorders of the mind, trying to decide which one I was a good fit for. Then he said slowly, carefully, "Well, Spender.... yes... that is actually interesting...quite interesting..."

Then he moved on to the T's.

I initially considered this a victory because I had gotten off the hook on the first try, but looking back now, I regret it. That event branded me with the Oddball Stamp for the remainder of my college career. This made for somewhat of a handicap later on.

However. If cups of coffee ever become a standardized measurement, like midnight or inches or miles, that would not only make me not weird, but one of the first to have done something before it was cool.

Wouldn't that be something!

20 January 2018

A Day in the Life, Episode V

9:00 -- It's a beautiful morning, with temps in the mid 40's. Cold weather usually means January is everybody's least favorite month of the year, but in South Carolina it's the best, in my opinion!

10:00 -- I make breakfast and then do stuff around the house while Wesley cleans up one of his rifles to sell. We may go try it out tomorrow after church.

2:00 -- I've had a funny little lingering pain in my left side for about a week now. I think it's a pulled muscle due to a cough I've had since the cold Wesley gave me -- on Christmas Day, coincidentally (aww, thanks dear!). Just out of curiosity, I googled "pain in side from coughing." The first result that came up began with: "Pain in Side: Other symptoms of lung cancer include..." I guess this is why they say don't your Google symptoms when something's wrong. Because -- one way or another -- everything (everything!) is cancer.

6:00 -- I made "souvlaki burgers" for dinner by mixing souvlaki chicken marinade seasoning into ground beef. To my surprise, it actually turned out okay. Nowhere near as good, however, as the burgers Stella used to make me during our roommate days -- the one-pounders (1/2 lb. of meat, 1/2 lb. of cheese) that Priscilla nicknamed "hypertension on a plate." Truly, those were not for the faint of heart. Or of arteries.

8:00 -- We spent a long time online tonight looking at houses in the Charlotte, NC area. We've found one or two that we're really interested in -- but of course, we have to wait for our current house to get an offer before we can make a move on anything. Fingers crossed!

18 January 2018

No Rights?


This week I was reading a book by a Christian author on the topic of forgiveness. She offered several reasons why we should forgive: because Christ has forgiven us, because we are under grace, because an unforgiving spirit leads to bitterness; because the debt owed to us by others cannot compare to the debt each of us owes to God.

So far, so good.

But then she said we should forgive because the refusal to do so comes from the illusion that we have "rights", when in fact, we have no rights at all. No rights means no expectations, and no expectations means no reason to withhold forgiveness:

"You find out that your dearest friend has talked negatively about you behind your back. Or even more debilitating to the soul, your spouse has been inappropriately texting another woman. Or worse. The natural thing is to demand rights. 'I have a right to her loyalty. I've been her friend for fourteen years and I would never talk about her behind her back like that.' Or 'I have a right to his fidelity. I'm his wife. He promised to cherish me.' Those are all correct thoughts in a sense. Yes, in a perfect world, we would hope that our friends would give us loyalty. And yes, in a perfect world, fidelity honors both God and our spouse. But we don't live in a perfect world. And the truth is that people fall... In Christ, we don't have to respond to the offenses of others from the proud stance of our rights...We don't have any rights when it comes to our relationships with other fallen humans."

Umm, excuse me? You have "no right" to expect fidelity from your spouse?!

Actually, you do. Marriage is a legally binding obligation defined by certain specific constraints, one of which is: "forsaking all others." This is a promise both you and your husband or wife make before God and multiple witnesses. You do have the right to hold each other to this; otherwise, the promise means nothing.

Rights don't end there. If a store overcharges you for an item you've bought, you have the right to get your money back. If someone breaks into your house with the intent of harming you or stealing your property, you have the right to fend them off and/or call the police to do it for you. If someone touches you inappropriately, you have the right to defend yourself. These are rights our society recognizes. Why doesn't the church?

Now, it's true that I've never actually heard anyone -- Christian or otherwise -- go so far as to say that you shouldn't defend yourself against a home invasion (for example). However, if you truly believe that you literally have no rights in your relationship to other humans, then taking this to its logical conclusion certainly doesn't place such an idea outside the realm of possibility.

It's troubling, but "Christians have no rights" is a well-worn mantra in today's church. And surprise, surprise, it's almost always said to women -- the ones who stand to lose the most from being denied their rights. It's a belief that is dysfunctional and abusive to the core. (You are going to get tired of hearing me say "dysfunction" and "abuse", but there are so many places in the church where both of these are hiding -- believe me, stuff like this is only the tip of the iceberg!)

Needless to say, I absolutely do not believe that we have no rights.

A right can be defined as "a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way." Our human rights are given to us by our Creator, because we are made in His image. Rights are derived from this inherent worth; whatever is devoid of rights is essentially worthless. For example, in the United States, paper money derives its worth from the U.S. Treasury. On this basis, it has the "right" to be treated differently from other types of paper: it has the power to settle debts, and it's illegal to destroy it or deface it.

In the same way, humans have rights granted to them by God because of the value and worth that God assigns to them. With these rights come expectations for certain standards of behavior. Hence the commandments: Do not steal, Do not murder, Do not commit adultery; Love your neighbor as yourself. You have the "right" to expect others to treat you with dignity, respect, and kindness! (Not that they will always do so, by any means, but that's the standard.) We are not free to excuse slander or marital infidelity because "we don't live in a perfect world." God commands friends to be loyal and spouses to be faithful, and He didn't say that we should wait for perfection to make those things reality. His instructions are meant for this world, here and now.

He also tells us to defend the poor and the oppressed (Proverbs 31:8-9). If the poor and oppressed have no rights, however, then we are wasting our time. Even worse, we're doing them a disservice by reinforcing expectations of fairness that they shouldn't have. Similarly, those in the pro-life movement say that unborn babies have "the right to life." Yet, if we as adults have no rights, surely babies don't, either.

But in fact, we (and others) do have rights, and there are consequences for trampling on them: God says that He will avenge those who suffer wrong. Note that avenging ourselves is a right we are expressly not given (Romans 12:19), but vengeance will be taken nevertheless. If there are no rights, then the concepts of justice and retribution have no meaning.

Some people get the "no rights" idea from 1 Corinthians 6:5-7:

"Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that." 

Paul's point is that it's better to suffer a wrong than to sue your brothers and sisters. Notice, though, that he has no qualms about admitting that the litigious ones are being wronged and defrauded, but he asks them to overlook this for the sake of the body of Christ and the reputation of the gospel. He does not say, "You have no reason to think you are being defrauded." In fact, the very idea of fraud is based on the infringement of another's rights: you can't defraud someone who has no rights in the first place!

Others will make the claim that Jesus' earthly example of responding with love and forgiveness when hurt by others is proof that we have no rights. But this is really saying something else altogether -- namely, that we shouldn't insist on others recognizing our rights and responding accordingly. There is merit to this idea. However! Saying that there are times when we should not require the immediate satisfaction of our rights is profoundly different from saying that those rights do not exist. It's true that during His time on earth Jesus didn't demand others to behave in a way that honored Him as God, but this does not mean that He did not have the right to such honor. It only means that, for a time, He chose not to act on His rights.

If someone ever tells you that you have no rights, it's worthwhile to ask yourself what their motive is. Many times, they're just parroting what they've been taught. I suspect this is what's happening in the case of the author I cited above. In some cases, though, their motive is far less benign: they have an agenda which requires them to gain power over their followers. In that case, you will want to put as much distance between yourself and them as possible. A person's autonomy is oftentimes the last thing standing between themselves and control by someone else. Once that final roadblock has been removed, then the way is open for the abuser to take advantage, and the victim has no grounds for refusal. When that happens, any degree of manipulation, any crime, any atrocity, anything at all, is possible -- and permissible.

It's truly a scary thought.

16 January 2018

Why My Christmas Tree Is Still Up


When I was young, the end of the Christmas season always brought on a severe case of denial for my neighbors up the road. It seemed that with each passing year they required an ever increasing length of time to take down their outdoor decorations. Mind you, all they had was a rather sickly looking tamarack tree festooned haphazardly with strings of red and green beads and several Christmas balls. It never particularly bothered me, but it bothered their neat-as-a-pin neighbor across the street (every neighborhood has one of those). One year he remarked to me dryly that, in his opinion, the time for the neighborhood to be "beginning to look a lot like Christmas" ought to be just about over. It was the middle of May.

Well, I hate to admit it, but I think I just might be that person -- that odious person who fails to get the Yuletide packed up and put away in a timely fashion. Because here it is, the sixteenth of January, and my Christmas tree is still up.

There are some good reasons for this; at least, I think they're good reasons. There's something odd and awkward and almost socially deviant about people who let the calendar go on without them while their decorations stay up. Knowing this, I feel like I owe the world an explanation, even though deep down I know it's highly likely nobody cares about it as much as I do.

1. I'm a cheapskate. To me, throwing away a tree that's still green feels like a waste. I mean, it's alive, and I hate to throw away anything that still has some life left in it: pens, batteries, tubes of toothpaste... Truth be told, there are a few items in my possession that were pronounced dead long ago that I should probably part with (a certain pair of comfy pants comes to mind)... 

2. It makes my living room a prettier place. You gotta cut me some slack on this one. I currently have beige walls, a sepia couch, a dark brown hutch, and a (mostly) brown rug that Wesley got on clearance at Lowe's. All this brown has made my living room look like it's drowning in a mud puddle. The Christmas tree is a bright spot of beauty in an otherwise drab place and I am loathe to part with it! Besides, the twinkly lights make me happy.

3. I have inertia. In the first place it takes me awhile to get the dumb thing up and fully decorated, and gosh dang it, I want to feel like I had enough time to enjoy it!

So, there are my good reasons. Which, now that I've spoken them aloud, don't sound as good to me after all.

Oh well.

I will take it down one of these days. And I promise not to wait until May!

12 January 2018

Things People Say: Introvert Edition

Despite all that's been written on the subject, introverts remain a pretty misunderstood bunch. What follows are some of the questions and comments we are often on the receiving end of, and what we're most likely thinking, but too polite (or too indifferent to bother) to say out loud:


1. "Why are you so quiet?" Gee, I don't know. Why are you such a chatterbox?

Alternatively, I will also say it's because the Bible tells us that someday humans will give an account to God for every careless word they've spoken (Matthew 12:36). Some of us don't want to have a lot of explaining to do!

2. "You're so quiet. Are you OK?" I'm not sure how we arrived at the conclusion that quiet = not ok. Loud and outgoing are hardly sure signs that all is well: Take, for example, Marilyn Monroe, Robin Williams, and countless other gregarious, talented, popular people, all of whom ultimately decided their lives were not worth continuing, despite what they had going for them.

This is one way (perhaps the only way) in which I found myself to be a better fit for Japanese culture than my own. During my short stay with them, the group of Japanese in whose company I spent my time all seemed to prefer silence themselves. They saw Americans as much too brash and brazen for everyday social interactions. My own natural lack of noisiness suited them just fine. No one asked me if something was wrong, or told me that silence was awkward, or that I needed to "cut loose" more. (It was wonderful.)

3. "We need to get you out of your shell." I'm not in a shell; therefore, you can't get me out of something I'm not inside of, can you?

In my opinion, there's really no comparison between having a quiet personality and being "in a shell." This is because a shell is, of course, hard. It's purpose is to form a protective barrier between its inhabitant and the rest of the world. Introverts have no such barrier -- they're not afraid of the world around them, and they don't necessarily harbor feelings of ill will toward it. They simply may not feel like interacting with it at any given point.

4. "You're just shy, aren't you." Not at all. Here's the difference between a shy person and an introvert: A shy person wants to talk to you, but can't because they're nervous. An introvert, on the other hand, just doesn't want to talk to you. Rest assured, it's nothing personal. They probably just don't feel the need to talk to anyone else because they find their own company sufficiently entertaining.

5. "Speak up/talk louder." The world has gotten much too comfortable with drowning out anything and anyone that doesn't clamor for attention at top volume. Who says the rest of us are responsible to cater to that? Hey noisy people, how about leaning in and actually listening? It won't hurt you at all, I promise!

6. "Stop being antisocial." "Antisocial" shouldn't be confused with "unsociable", which is what most people actually mean when they say this. Unsociable simply means "not inclined to socialize." On the other hand, antisocial literally means "against society", and connotes destructive, criminal behavior, such as vandalism. Not exactly an accusation that deserves to be leveled at that quiet girl who sticks to the sides of a room rather than the middle at parties.

7. "You think too much." Yes, it's true; I do quite a bit of thinking. You should give it a try sometime!

06 January 2018

10 Things that Make No Sense


1. The expression "Falling in love." It's the "falling" part that gets me. Falling is almost always accidental, occasioned by a sudden loss of control: falling into a ditch, falling downstairs, even falling asleep. What then am I supposed to make of the idea of "falling" in love? Does love also happen accidentally, without my permission, and without any warning? If so, then it would seem that I've missed out on this experience. Bummer.

On a related note --

2. Getting drunk. Here I'm not thinking so much of full-time alcoholics; I'm thinking of the people for whom drunkenness is sort of a weekend hobby, a part of leisure time. I have to admit that the "fun" aspect of intoxication is lost on me -- the only effects alcohol gives me are nausea and profuse sweating. I guess it must not affect everyone this way, because I can't think for the life of me why all those people would choose to inflict flu-like symptoms on themselves for fun. As it is, most of the individuals who fail to "enjoy responsibly" (as the beer commercials put it) end up with headaches, dehydration, vertigo, and whatever else a hangover usually does. I personally would consider this to be sufficient incentive to find a new weekend hobby... but, hey, what do I know.

3. People (excluding small children!) who say, "I wish we could celebrate Christmas every day of the year." Listen, I would be in the poorhouse if we did that, and so would you. I would also be sick from that many Christmas cookies. And do you really want to hear "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" all year long? I didn't think so.

4. The Great Alma Mater Grab for Cash. I can see why universities do this to their older alumni -- the ones who are well established in their careers (or comfortably retired), who are actually in a good position to help fatten up that endowment fund. What I don't get is why they go after the younger set with equal aggressiveness when they stand to gain so very much less for the effort. And they start early with it, too: The very same day that I arrived back home from my college graduation, there was a letter from the school waiting in my mailbox: "Not that you're an alumna, please donate to the student scholarship fund!" In fact, both of my alma maters hit me up for cash on the regular. And I'm like, Go away, people. I already gave you all the money I have. And lots of money that I don't have.

5. House selling season. Silly me, I thought people move when they need to move, just like they buy a car when they need to, or they get a new job when they need one. I can't imagine anyone saying, "Oh darn, I got laid off. I guess I'll have to wait until 'new job season' to apply for work!" But I put my house on the market in October and I discover that, lo and behold, everyone who needs to buy a house waits until spring. Who knew? Apparently, everybody but me.

6. Fat Free Half 'n Half. Need I say, the best fat free option is called black coffee. And it's also "free" of extra cost, as well.

7. Online shopping deals from unidentified time zones. You find a great deal online for something you've had your eye on for awhile. The sale comes with free shipping and it ends at midnight. You get excited and start placing your order, only to discover that the whole thing is full price at checkout. Why? Well, unfortunately, midnight happens at different times around the world, and unbeknownst to you, the Belarus-based company from which you are buying ended their sale at 12 a.m. Ulan Bator Standard Time, eleven hours ago.

8. "Surprise" marriage proposals. I'm really not sure why getting the plan to marry in motion is something only the groom-to-be is traditionally "in the know" about. His prospective fiancee's sense of timing as to when this should happen are equally relevant to the arrangement, I would think. Even more so when you consider that this deal is for keeps. The agreement to commit to a lifetime partnership is definitely not something you want to catch you off guard.

9. Baking soda boxes. Baking powder comes in a handy little metal can, and the opening has a flat edge to make measuring easy. Why can't baking soda also be packaged this way? Why does it have to come in a flimsy cardboard box that you can't measure from without making a mess? I have never understood this, but I have ample time to reflect while sweeping up baking soda off my floor and countertops.

10. Daylight Savings Time. Get jet lag, no travel necessary! Why do we do this to ourselves? Nobody seems to know anymore.

03 January 2018

The Coffee Lover's 1 Corinthians 13

Though I stock my kitchen with the prettiest of cups and the fanciest of coffeemakers, and have not coffee, I am become as grounds in the pot or curdled half-n-half.

And though I host parties like Martha Stewart, and understand the tastes and preferences of all my guests, and though I have all money, so that I could afford all delicacies, and have not coffee, I am nothing.

And though I set my alarm for an early hour, and though I determine to get through my to-do list quickly in the morning, and have not coffee, it profiteth me nothing.

Coffee taketh not long to brew, and is tasty; coffee smelleth heavenly; coffee paireth itself with manifold confectioneries, enliveneth every social event.

Doth not cost too much if bought online with free shipping, roasteth easily, filleth me with antioxidants, causeth me no jitters.

Keepeth me awake during the day, but not in the evening.

Brighteneth all things, cheereth all things, energizeth all things, improveth all things.

Coffee never faileth: but whether there be other beverages, they shall fail; whether there be anti-caffeine health fads they shall cease; whether there be decaf it shall vanish away.

For we buy in bulk, and we roast in bulk.

But when that which is ground is ready to brew, then that which is leftover from last night shall be thrown away.

When I was a child, I drank Folgers as a child, I drank Maxwell House as a child, I drank Nescafe as child: but when I became a man, I put away inferior brands of coffee.

For now we see through a mug, darkly; but then I shall wash the mug: now I brew in a pot; but after my guests go home, then shall I brew even as much as I desire in my French press.

And now abideth tea, hot chocolate, coffee, these three; but the greatest of these is coffee.


02 January 2018

A Day in the Life, Episode IV

8:15 -- is the absolute latest I can sleep in since I have to start work by 8:30. (Bummer.)

8:30 -- It is kind of a strange thing to work from home. Normally you think of your home as a haven away from work, but when your home is also your office, things get a little strange. It's kind of like being under house arrest. I have to take a break and eat my lunch when someone else says I can, but... I'm at home. (People ask me if I still go to the bathroom whenever I want, to which I say -- yes.)

12:30 -- Wesley is working a job up in Summerville today. He'll be there for a few days, so I'm on my own. This means I can eat whatever I want for dinner, so I open up the fridge and start pondering the possibilities.

12:38 -- Not that I have very many, since I haven't been grocery shopping in awhile.

1:00 -- Back to work.

3:14 -- Time for a break. I check the mailbox. No mail. Does nobody like me? Is that why they don't send me any mail?

3:15 -- Thinking -- I remember back when email was first starting to become popular. At that time, getting snail mail or handwritten letters was pretty ho-hum, but getting "electronic mail" -- now that was a big deal. (There were no spammers back then!) Now it's the opposite: my email inbox is flooded every day, but getting a good piece of mail -- in my actual mailbox -- makes my day.

5:00 -- I think all day about that song, "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere." Finally it's five o'clock here!

5:18 -- Earlier I had decided to make BBQ chicken in the Crock Pot, but I left it on high for too many hours and now it's smoky. And not in the good way.

5:28 -- Wesley texts me a picture of where he's eating tonight: an Afghan kebab house. This is the absolute last thing I would have ever said you could expect to find in South Carolina. Also, I'm extremely jealous. He says it's not very good, but he's only saying that because he doesn't know what he's missing out on here...

7:00 -- My evening routine when I'm alone is typical introvert's fare: reading, writing, a long bubble bath and a glass of wine. Well, okay, I don't have the glass of wine. Or the long bubble bath, thanks to the tub drain not keeping the water in long enough to take a bath. Unless you like to bathe for five minutes or less -- but I personally don't go for that.

11:00 -- Time for bed. Snow is rumored to be in the forecast for tomorrow, but I'll believe it when I see it. Any snow that comes around here is either (a) wishful thinking, (b) half rain, or (c) doesn't accumulate, because the ground isn't cold enough. Snow is not a frequent visitor here on the Atlantic Coast of South Carolina. Anyway, good night from the "low country" in the deep South!