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.

14 May 2018

Things People Say: Generational Christianese Edition

The last time I wrote about Christianese, I ran out of space before I could truly do justice to the topic of generation-specific dialects. (Not that I think I could ever truly do justice to this subject, mind you.)

We'll start with the millennial generation's favorites:

1. Vulnerable. Once upon a time, not so long ago, vulnerable was a word that carried purely negative connotations, as in "vulnerable to disease" or "vulnerable to a surprise military attack." However, these days -- in Christian circles, at least -- the associations are overwhelmingly positive. Ask almost anyone under 35 and they'll tell you that a Bible study or small group where you can go and be vulnerable is a great thing. You should be able to bare your soul on any topic, from existential anxieties to concupiscent fantasies, and not worry about anyone judging you for it. It's a place where you can be completely honest. Or, as my aunt used to say, "It's a place where they hold your hand and make you talk about your feelings." (She does have a point there.)

2. Authentic. We love this one. We desire anything and everything spiritual -- from marriage seminars to "worship experiences" -- to be authentic. Authentic means "of undisputed origin" or "genuine", so I'd say, why not? Everything in the Christian life should be authentic. What bothers me a little is: shouldn't this go without saying?

3. Relevant. Go to any church or parachurch ministry's web site that's aimed at millennials, and I practically guarantee you'll spot the word "relevant" within thirty seconds. We love relevant almost as much as we love authentic, maybe a little bit more. Again, I'm not sure why it can't go without saying. It's a sad commentary on the state of the church these days, that neither the relevance nor the authenticity of our expressions of Christianity can be taken for granted.

4. Intentional! Recently, one of those self-promotional emails of the type that Christian mommy bloggers send out regularly landed in my inbox. (How did I get on their mailing list? More importantly, how do I get off of it?) The sender of this one was clearly a fan of the I-word. The email offered "10 Tips for an Intentional Summer", informed me of an upcoming sale on "Intentional Holiday Planners", and invited me to join an "Intentional Blogging Community." There was even a link to "5 Steps to Hosting an Intentional Thanksgiving Dinner."

Well, I don't know about the other stuff. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I have never in my life pulled off Thanksgiving dinner (or any size dinner, for that matter) unintentionally. Unless I was sleepwalking and didn't know about it. And believe me, if they ever figure out a way to make dinner just happen without any thought or effort or extra money on my part, I'll be the first in line to sign up. Until then, I think I'm going to be hitting the delete button on these emails. Intentionally.

5. Community. "Community" has become a bit of a buzzword in the postmodern era, and not without good reason. We are slowly getting away from the idea that the Christian life happens only on Sundays, relegated to a small selection of religious activities. Of course, the way this word is often used ("community groups", etc.) belies that notion... but hey, progress is progress.

(Bonus points for using all five words at once, for example: "We are seeking an authentic, relevant  community where we can be intentional about our vulnerability.")

Baby Boomers -- as well as the generation before them -- particularly love:

1. The Lord's Day. No, it's not a huge crime to refer to the first day of the week as Sunday. However, calling it by its proper name -- "the Lord's Day" -- will aid in distinguishing you from the reprobate heathen who believe that the first day of the week is for sleeping in. Not that anyone would ever catch you doing that anyway, because Sunday mornings will find you at...

2. "God's house." Church-goers ages 50 and up are awfully possessive of their local church building as "God's house." This notion persists despite the fact that for the past 1,950 years, 1 Corinthians 3:16 and Hebrews 13:6 have been telling us that we, the people of God, are His house. Trust me, this is good news. The full implication of our musty, dusty (or, in some cases, overly commercialized) church building being the official dwelling place of God Almighty is too depressing to think about!

3. I was exercised about... I'll be honest, I really only hear this one among Plymouth Brethren septuagenarians. This odd usage of exercise in the passive voice is Brethren-speak for "I was convicted about" or "I struggled with." It's a way of saying that the Holy Spirit has been "working on you" about a certain issue, and as a result you've been pushed outside of your comfort zone spiritually (hence the "exercise" part). I get why they say it, but I don't know -- "I was exercised" sounds a little too much to me like something one might say about post-op physical therapy.

4. In the will of the Lord. This is generally used as a sort of "escape clause" in regard to scheduled events, for example: "We'll have a potluck this Wednesday night, in the will of the Lord." In reality, it can mean almost anything from "These plans are still tentative" to "It's anyone's guess if this will happen at all." As always, context is everything.

5. If the Lord tarries. Updated translation: "If the Rapture doesn't happen today." This phrase has the same meaning as, and may be used interchangeably with, "in the will of the Lord." There are two things that puzzle me about this one:
  • The use of tarry. We don't feel the need to speak King James English the rest of the time, so why now?
  • Why do we need to bother with saying this at all? It seems rather obvious to me that, no, of course we won't be doing such-and-such if the Lord actually returns today. This is not a cause for concern, so no need for a disclaimer. I can pretty much guarantee you that you're not going to hear any of the newly-raptured saints say, "Hey, but what about that potluck...?"

01 May 2018

The Inner Makeup Monologue

How I feel when someone ELSE (who knows what they're doing!) does my makeup.
Complete with colors and sparkly dust, of course.

When I was in college, it seemed like each one of my five roommates had enough makeup to completely cover the bathroom counter. I was the lone exception with only two items -- and now I've expanded my collection so much, I can fit it all in one little handbag with room to spare.

I guess I'm a makeup minimalist. I never use more than I have to, and I never stray far from the neutral look.

This isn't because I'm unadventurous. It's just that bolder makeup doesn't have quite the same effect on me that it does on others. Take the smoky eye, for instance. It makes most women who wear it look sultry and sexy, but it just makes me look hung over. I'm not really sure why.

Also, there's the matter of pragmatism: The less product I use, the less there is that can go wrong. And, well... I suppose I'm just lazy. I commit the mortal sin of applying foundation directly to my skin. I don't bother with all the primers and toners and cleansers and lotions and whatnot. I've never used bronzer, and I haven't the slightest idea how to contour my cheekbones. In some ways this makes me feel like a fraud; mostly it just makes me thankful that my beauty routine never takes me longer than seven minutes to complete.

They say you should sort through all your makeup regularly and toss anything you've had for more than six months. Hah! Do they know how much makeup costs? Well, I do. I'm a cheapskate and a disciple of "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." I'm still using concealer and eye shadow I bought in 2015. Does that make me a gross nasty person? Oh well. Sue me.

I mean, the stuff doesn't grow on trees, people. Anyway, concealer is one of life's greatest gifts, so when I find a good one, I'm loathe to part with it just because it's reached someone else's arbitrary expiry date.

Fun fact: I recently learned, through trial and error (and a decade of my face looking like pepperoni pizza), that gluten intolerance can cause -- of all things -- recurring cystic acne. Isn't that lovely? Every time I eat bread or pasta, I have to wear the evidence on my face for weeks (sometimes months) afterward. And since it's caused by an allergy, not hormones, I'll likely have this problem for keeps. (If I didn't think life was unfair before, I certainly do now.) That's why concealer is on my list of must-haves if I were stranded on a deserted island (along with food and potable water and the means to brew a proper cup of coffee).

This malady has one possible "up side", however: If I'm still breaking out like a teenager in my thirties and forties, maybe everyone will think I'm younger than I really am. So, there's that.

Speaking of unfair, why do women have to wear makeup to be considered attractive, but men don't?

I know, I know. It's a societal expectation that I conform to of my own free will. There's plenty out there that I don't conform to -- high heels, for instance. I mean, I might if they made me look pretty. Alas, they don't. And they're uncomfortable, and they're a hindrance to podiatric health, and they make me taller than all the men I know. Not to mention, they multiply my "clumsy factor" exponentially. I figure there's no use suffering in pain and weakening my calf muscles if I'm just going to look like a gorilla on stilts for all my trouble.

Anyway, back to the makeup.

Eye shadow. I rather enjoy using this; it feels like art. But if it doesn't come with that "paint by numbers" guide on it, showing you where on your eyelid to apply each color in the palette, I'm lost. I just put some on where I think it looks good and hope for the best. I've had mixed results with that, needless to say.

Then I might use an eyeliner pencil, mostly because the non-smeary application of liquid eyeliner remains an inscrutable mystery to me. And that whole thing about applying eyeliner to the waterline of your lower eyelid -- eek, that freaks me out. My eyes see a pointy object coming at them and they staunchly refuse to cooperate. (Not that I blame them.) Ditto for eyelash curlers. Eyelash curlers look to me like something I don't want near my eyeballs.

Then I apply my maybe-older-than-six-months mascara, some powder to make me look not-sweaty (even though I probably am) and some blush to make me look rosy (because I'm probably not), and I'm done.

And to tell you the truth, I don't think I look much different than I did when I started.

Somebody famous -- I think it was Tina Fey -- said that after a certain age, makeup stops being about enhancing your good looks and starts being purely about damage control. I feel this truth deep in my soul, and also deep in the wrinkle on my forehead between my eyebrows. Please, I've only just recently figured out how to use makeup to bring out my natural good looks (or to try -- in futility -- to create them out of nothing). Can't I have, oh, at least a few more years before I have to worry about the damage control part?

Of course, by then I'm also going to have to do something about my gray hair. More specifically, I'm going to have to do something to be able to shell out the cash to do something about my gray hair. Because man, that crap is expensive. I anticipate that in my approaching golden years, when my financial planner asks me, "So how's your retirement fund doing?" I'm going to have to say, I don't have one. I only have a hair coloring fund. Whether to be homeless and penniless with pretty hair and makeup, or to be a frump sitting on a decent nest egg, is a choice I feel certain I'll have to make at some further juncture.

I'm not too worried, though. I'm sure while I'm busy not doing certain things -- like restocking my makeup twice a year -- I'll have plenty of time to come up with something!