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.