Monday, January 31, 2011

Everything for Our Enjoyment

The other day, I was sitting down to a scrumptious-looking meal with friends and one person said, "Don't you feel guilty having all this food?" It's a common sentiment I hear, being surrounded by people who are immersed in stories and images of poverty. Guilt seems to be a natural response when we juxtapose our relative wealth with others' relative poverty. But I think guilt is often the wrong response.

Guilt implies we are guilty.

"Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life." 1 Timothy 6:17-19

This is an amazing passage. I wish I'd heard more sermons on it. (I can't recall having heard any.) Here, as well as many other places in the Bible, some guidelines are set up for those who are wealthy:

  • Don't be snooty about your wealth. ("My home is so much nicer than theirs...")
  • Don't put your hope in your money. ("I'll be fine; I have money.")
  • Do lots of good things for other people. (And not just yourself.)
  • Be generous.
  • Share.

If we sit down to a meal and we suddenly feel guilty because we are stingy, we are snooty, we don't help other people and we never share our money, then, yes, guilt is the right response. We feel guilty because we are guilty.

But if we are following the Bible's guidelines for living with wealth and we still feel guilty, I think it is an unhealthy response based on our lack of understanding of one little phrase sandwiched in the middle of this passage:

"God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment."

God provides for us. God has provided everything good; it didn't spontaneously generate. ("Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." James 1:17) And he doesn't simply provide for survival, he provides for enjoyment.

Food tastes good because God made it taste good. Beaches are beautiful because God made them beautiful. Sex is good because God made it good. But in our earnest desire to not put our hope in our wealth and this world, how often do we throw out the good things God created for our enjoyment with our bad attitudes toward them.

We trade hedonism for ascetism.

God calls no one to hedonism - living only for the pleasures of this world. But he does call some to ascetism - "Jesus looked at him and loved him. 'One thing you lack,' he said. 'Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.' " Mark 10:21)

This fact and our over-active guilt complexes can lead us to believe that any enjoyment of the creation is evil. That wealth itself is evil. It's just not so. Putting your hope in this world is wrong. Enjoying it within the boundaries God has set is sanctioned.

The other day, I was sitting at Starbucks and I overheard a woman discussing with her friend whether she should accept an $85,000 job offer or hold out for $90,000. Being a writer, I'm pretty sure this is one of those tough life choices that I will have the luxury of avoiding. Mike and I have always lived on one income, and that of a writer/editor. So I'm not saying that we should all go buy yachts and sail to Aruba in order to embrace "everything for our enjoyment." (Not that being a Christian necessarily precludes this.)

But I do think that we can each take a little time each day to wonder at and enjoy the beauties of life that God has created and given us. I can bite into a strawberry and marvel at how such a sweet and beautiful thing grows out of the dirt. I cannot worship the strawberry. I can hug my husband and marvel at the sensation of unconditional acceptance that a hand on your back can give you. I cannot worship my husband. I can enjoy making my home comfortable and cozy for my family. But I cannot worship my home.

None of us are called to revel only in the beauties of this world. Some of us may be called to sell everything we own to follow Jesus. But for many of us, we must strike that elusive balance of always putting Christ first while living as flesh and blood in this world in which God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

My New Digs

A life update for my mom and dad

I've been in my new job for a couple of weeks now. I'm finally all set up with a new desk and computer and all. I decided I didn't want to share the office with Mike, so we set up the desk in the living room. So here is where I am now spending my days.

We like the way the desk looks in the living room - it's making our house look a little more filled in and lived in. Many times, though, I sit in the front room where I can look out the window and watch the bunnies and squirrels play. In fact, I've had some really good conversations with Frank, the squirrel who lives in our bush.

Mike usually works at home until lunchtime, so we've been eating lunches together, and we've even eaten outside on nice days. This is good for Mike, who since the store has opened has been skipping lunch, bad boy. I've also been able to cook dinner most days. Gasp! I had taken a year-long hiatus from cooking and it feels good to be back. Hopefully I'll get back into my skinny jeans soon. (But not those skinny jeans that are tight on your calves. Those are vile.)

Then we've also taken walks over lunch on most days. I'm excited for how healthy we'll become. In our neighborhood, nearly every walk is a hike because it's steep. On Thursday, we walked at Ute Valley Park, a huge nearby park. (See that pink quarry on the lefthand side of the photo? That's over where we live. Ute Valley has a beautiful view.)

One change in my life is that I'm now oddly social. Before, I would come home from work tired and eager to stay home alone all night and all weekend. Now I'm suddenly social Sally. Yesterday I offered my husband to drive to Sterling for the weekend (where his parents are from, but he had meetings). Then we drove last minute to Denver to watch a movie we'd already seen with my parents. Now today I'm eager to go to both church and a night worship service. It's like a whole new social me. Exciting.

All this to say, I'm still loving working from home and enjoying life.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Treating the Words of a Despairing Man as Wind

Liz asked a great question about how we should respond to people who are suffering. I can't presume to know how to answer this question, but it is a topic that deeply interests me and I'll share what I've learned from others.

What we can know from Job is that he was in the depths: "I prefer strangling and death, rather than this body of mine. I despise my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone; my days have no meaning." Job 7:15-16

In short, Job wants to die.

And not in the flippant way we might say it. He repeatedly begs God to kill him. So, this is a low man.

The best thing (in my opinion) that his friends do is come and sit silently with him for seven days to mourn with him (Job 2:13). But as soon as they open their mouths, their words aren't aimed at comforting or encouraging Job, but at rebuking and correcting him. They think he is suffering because he must have some uncovered sin in his life.

Here's how it affects Job:

"I have heard many things like this; miserable comforters are you all! Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing? I also could speak like you, if you were in my place; I could make fine speeches against you and shake my head at you. But my mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring relief." Job 16:2-5

Job's friends give long-winded, very spiritual sounding speeches. But they don't comfort or bring relief, they bring accusation. This is probably in a different context from many of our conversations, because most of the people I know don't comfort people by saying they are suffering as a result of sin. But I think there still can be a tendency to give long-winded spiritual speeches of what we think the person "needs to hear."

Sometimes people do need to hear truth, if they are thinking wrongly, and do need their perspective corrected. But I think we ought to approach this very, very carefully. Sometimes a person needs someone to simply listen and mourn with them. And often when what we need is a friend to mourn with us, our friend's well-meaning spiritual speeches don't make us feel helped, but dismissed. I think Job's words express it perfectly:

"Do you mean to correct what I say, and treat the words of a despairing man as wind?" Job 6:26

When we sit and listen to a person and then very promptly move on to correcting them, "speaking truth into their lives," and sharing what perspective they ought to have, I think we "treat the words of a despairing man as wind."

We dismiss their very real problems and suffering with a wave of our hand. I think we sometimes do this because it is easier.

I worked on two books several years ago that I found immensely helpful in comforting someone,
Comforting Women in Crisis and Comforting Friends in Crisis. In both of them, Christian counselors give advice for how to comfort someone going through various situations, such as cancer, miscarriage, depression, etc. I'll boil down some of the most helpful advice about what to say and not to say here:

Don't say words that will dismiss someone's situation, belittle it, or compare it to someone whose situation is worse. We subtly communicate dismissal when we say things like, "Don't worry, God will give you another baby," if a friend has had a miscarriage. This sends the message that her pain isn't legitimate. Or when we say things like, "At least you already have one child," to a woman who becomes infertile. "At least" statements are dangerous ground, as we're really communicating, "It's not that bad." That's not very comforting. Comparing statements are the same; when we tell about someone whose situation is even worse, we're really just telling the person, "your pain isn't that valid."

We also have a tendency to tell stories in an attempt to comfort..."I knew this woman once who tried 20 years to have a baby, then she adopted and got pregnant right away!" To me the most odious thing about sharing these stories is the frequency with which they're told. If you're struggling with a particular issue, you hear story after story after story of someone else's happy (or sad) ending, but it's not particularly helpful to you in the doldrums. You don't know what will happen in their life. Maybe they'll have a baby, maybe they won't.

Other times, there's just flat out dismissal: "Oh, it'll be fine, you'll see." "Don't worry, God has a plan." For one thing, we don't know if things will be fine (by our definition of fine), and for another, there's no better way to make someone feel like you aren't listening or don't really care than saying, "It'll be fine," or "Don't worry." I was personally told this repeatedly by people while Mike was looking for a job. It didn't make me feel better, it made me feel dismissed.

And then, of course, there is the spiritualizing of pain. The truths may be biblical, but sometimes we just need comfort. This was the main thing I heard while Mike was looking for a job. "Oh, you are just going to grow so much from this situation." "God must really want to strengthen your character." "You can't see why now, but God has a reason for your suffering." These statements are all true. But if someone is in a crisis situation, they've probably heard them over and over and over. Sometimes they feel more like salt on a wound than comfort.

So that's all the negative. What can we say to comfort? What comes up in the advice of the Christian counselors in the above books over and over and over again are statements of love and care and humility:

"I'm so sorry you're going through this."

"I love you and I wish you didn't have to experience this."

"I don't know what to say, but I'm your friend and I'm here for you."

"What can I do to help you? How can I pray for you?"

In my own small mountain of struggle, I was so thankful for my friends and family who, rather than saying, "Oh, it'll be fine, don't worry," said, "I'm so sorry you have to go through this. I'm here for you if you need anything." The difference to the hearer is relief and comfort, the feeling of a friend and a listener and someone to understand and sympathize, rather than someone to stand off from afar, like Job's friends, and correct.

God didn't rebuke Job for saying he wanted to die. But he did rebuke Job's friends for their long-winded, spiritual speeches.

Yes, sometimes friends need truth. But sometimes they just need consolation, comfort, love and care.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

One Man in Full Vigor, Another in Bitterness of Soul

I'm reading Job right now. I got the archaelogy Bible for Christmas which I'm loving. It helps me to read the passages in light of what was common in other cultures' contemporary passages. For example, when Job was lamenting his awful fate, there is no hint in his words (or the words of his errant friends) that God is capricious. There's no hint that God is a God who punishes us out of whim or pettiness - much unlike stories contemporary to it that tell of jealous and petty gods.

The words of Job are such poetry and oddly comforting in their stark reality.

One man dies in full vigor, completely secure and at ease,
his body well nourished, his bones rich with marrow.
Another man dies in bitterness of soul, never having enjoyed anything good.
Side by side they lie in the dust, and worms cover them both.

Job's friends are rather poor comforters, and Job's response to them is "How long will you torment me and crush me with words?" I hope I don't torment and crush my friends with my so-called words of comfort.

Job is reminding me of a book I recently read, A Place of Healing by Joni Eareckson Tada. She has been repeatedly approached over the past many years by people saying that she is in a wheelchair because of her sin - that if she would just repent, God would heal her. Now she is living in severe chronic pain and, as the subtitle states, "wrestling with the mysteries of suffering, pain, and God's sovereignty."

I'd recommend the book to anyone dealing with suffering. In fact, if you'd like a copy, I'll give you mine. Just leave me a comment and let me know if you'd like it. (If more than one person comments, I'll draw a name on Saturday.)

Another book that I really learned from about suffering was When I Lay My Isaac Down. Both women relate their experiences of unthinkable suffering with such compassion that you really feel as if they are "suffering with" you (the root of the words "com" and "passion") and not judging you or self-righteously telling you to fix your feelings.

Leave me a comment if you'd like Joni's book!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Stories, Stories Everywhere

After yesterday's post about story, today I am blatantly stealing this title from Eric Asp, who wrote a blog about story over here. I agree with Eric that story and the concept of storytelling is riding a strong wave right now, and I hope it overtakes us all.

I think one of the happiest things to happen to story of late is Pixar. Some critics wonder how Pixar can crank out hit after hit after hit. And not only box office hits, but actually good movies. The answer is simple: They put story first (which I know from watching hour upon hour of Pixar special features). Because their goal is not to be edgy or deep or even artistic (though those things might happen along the way); their goal is to tell a good story.

Their motto is "Story is king." So if someone has some brilliant effects idea, it has to come and bow down before story. If the idea doesn't serve the story by progressing the plot or the character's narrative arc, then it's cut. Why all movie-makers don't take such an obvious step toward creating good movies is beyond me (but I suspect it has to do with executive types who like to blow things up).

I've learned more about story from Pixar than in any university creative writing course. (Instead of paying thousands for school, we should all just stay up late at night watching the special features for Wall-E.)

So there is hope for story. But as I was pondering Eric's thoughts that story is on its way back, I also think there are also negative trends - a fake embrace fo story. I intended to write a long post about this, but then I remember that I already wrote about it several years ago. It's embarassing how I keep repeating myself and it's even more embarassing to pretentiously refer to your own writing, but I'm going with the latter.

In any case, I'd rather be at home watching Up or Toy Story 3 than in a one-ups-man game of "Did you read..." with the literati. (I really just contrived this entire post to have some semi-related reason to post this video, which I love.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

In Defense of Story

Or: Why I Read "Children's" Books (Disclaimer: Many of my thoughts are stolen from Chesterton, Sayers, Lewis, Tolkien and my husband.)

Much of the reading world is being unwittingly held captive by the intellectual elite.

Humans have loved story for as long as we know. By story I mean a narrative of progressing events that follow a fairly standard arc of exposition, conflict, climax and resolution. Story, in this form, has been with us for all known history. Mythology, adventure, mystery, fairy tale and folklore have delighted us for millenia. It is the archetype of the protagonist facing seemingly unconquerable challenges and overcoming them in the end.

The narrative story arc is not a law made up by man and imposed on story. It is something seemingly inherent in man and only a "law" in the sense that it is an observable consistent pattern in the universe, like gravity. Aristotle observed it 2300 years ago, and it is still true today.

And yet modern writers treat the story arc like the "law" of some old curmudgeon that they must break, rather than a "law" of human nature that can guide us. Thus you have all kinds of modern writers who purposefully break the conventions, as if to say "ha!" to the universe. But they do so at their own peril, or they would if the intellectual elite would admit that the emperor really has no clothes on.

Someone, whom I can't remember (perhaps G.K. Chesterton), once said that stories used to be about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. The modern story is about ordinary things happening to extraordinary people. The shift has been made from being interested in story to being interested in psychology or society. Thus you have the psychological novel in which Ulysses wanders about Dublin all day doing nothing in particular and boring high school students to death ad infinitum.

And you have all sorts of authors writing novels in which they turn every convention they can find on its head in order to be edgy and new and artistic. And you have readers who read books in order to have their perceptions tampered with rather than to enjoy themselves. People are more concerned with a work being different than with a work being good.

But the problem with our ever-increasing literary thirst for edginess is that it all eventually becomes exhausting and boring and meaningless. For example: Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, acclaimed for being a postmodern literary breakthrough and which Time includes in its 100 best books list (which people regretably go to for their leisure reading). It is a mystery novel in which one never "solves" the mystery, beyond learning that the truth is unknowable and that all pursuit of truth is vain.

And here is the crux of why so many modern novels are so odious. Ultimately, the modern novel, which chucks story in favor of oddity, is a vehicle through which authors express their belief that all truth is ultimately unknowable, that all pursuits are meaningless, and thus our best bet is to simply create our own universe and truth to live in while we wait out the storm of life. This philosophy rejects story, as story can only exist in a universe with meaning, order, and, ultimately, God.

Not all modern novels are as extreme in their philosophy as Crying, but in their own way they are the fashionable and perhaps unwitting children of the ultimate postmodern heresy: nihilism.

On the other hand, those of us who still like our tea and crumpets, who still like to read The Wind in the Willows and Wuthering Heights are condescended to in our supposed arrested development. Tolkien said that when certain types of literature went out of fashion, they were banished to the nursery. Thus, the standard literary fare which has long nourished us is now belittled as only suitable for children:

"Now this, you may notice, implies that we are regarding as specifically childish a taste which in many, perhaps in most times and places has been that of the whole human race. Those stories from Greek or Norse mythology, from Homer, from Spenser, or from folklore which children (but by no means all children) read with delight were once the delight of everyone." C.S. Lewis, "On Juvenile Tastes"

The implication is that children have childish taste. But the truth is that children have good taste. They are the ones who have no reason to posture and pretend that the emperor has new clothes on. They have no motivation for reading books but pleasure, and thus only read what they would classify as "good."

How many of us now read not what we call "good," but what we call "compelling" or "groundbreaking" or "revolutionary" or "fascinating." Surely not all of this reading is bad, but how much of it is fueled by pretension? And how much of it really feeds our souls in a wholesome and nourishing way?

We are willingly subjecting ourselves to the tyranny of the intellectual elite. Those who say that only their "Art" is the real art and all else belongs to the small-minded masses. Afraid of being called the masses, we all pretend that the emperor is wearing clothing and that we love Ulysses and find so much artistic work deep and illuminating and moving rather than depressing, absurd and "cruddy," as my grandmother would call it.

Why must we sacrifice bread and butter stories for the alleged "adult" pursuits of higher literary works - which so often reject the possibility of story in the universe? I, for one, will not.

"When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up." C.S. Lewis, "On Three Ways of Writing for Children"

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Top Five Things You Hear as a Writer/Editor

It has been a couple of years now that I have been able to make my living as a writer/editor. It's been simply mahvelous. Now that I have a little experience, there are several things I hear over and over.

1. "I'm so afraid to write you an email." Many, many times I've been told that people are afraid to write an email to me or have a conversation with me because there is a widespread suspicion out there that writers and editors are just waiting with bated breath for the world around them to make a mistake so that we can say, "Aha, you fool! You should have said 'whom,' not 'who.' " Perhaps some editors have earned this reputation. A coworker of mine used to get emails back from her copy editor mother with punctuation corrections in them. So certainly bun-tight editors do exist who thirst to cross out your "crispy" and replace it with "crisp." But I'll at least say for myself: I don't care. I edit all day. I hardly want to read your email and worry about whether or not you use the series comma. So relax. A lot of us writer/editors aren't judging you every minute of the day. We have others things to do.

2. "Aha, you fool! You wrote 'your' instead of 'you're.' I thought you were a writer. Geez." Perhaps because the world wrongly believes we are waiting to judge them, you don't get much slack when you make a mistake as a writer or editor. If I'm quickly typing off my Facebook status and I make a typing error, man oh man will I hear about it. The world is jubilant at our mistakes. We're not perfect. And the world adores it when we're not. In my own case, I confuse words all the time. Why, not five minutes ago, I typed "assumed" to someone, when I should have typed "implied."

3. "Oh, you're a writer? One of my life goals is to write a book." I believe one out of every two people I've ever met intends to write a book one day. I wonder if this happens to other professions. When an artist talks to people do they often say, "Oh, I intend to paint a mural one day." Or do people often tell engineers, "Oh, I intend to build a bridge one day." I often ask these people, "What do you write now?" They usually respond, "Oh nothing, I'm far too busy to write." I wonder how runners feel when people tell them, "Oh, I really want to be a runner, too!" and then the runner finds out that they've never in fact tried to run, nor bought running shoes, nor even walked, nor in fact do they actually intend to ever start running until some far distant time when they aren't so busy. I imagine I feel a little like the runner in that situaiton. I believe many people are in love with the idea of writing, just like the idea of running, but not the actual act. I suppose I have a rather romantic view of writing. I write because I can't not write. If you can not write for decades on end without real bother, then I'm forced to wonder if you really are a writer at all. (Not whether or not you can write, which is a completely different matter.)

4. "Oh, my grandma is a writer. I wonder if you can get her published!" If you do not personally want to write a book, chances are that your grandma or daughter or personal trainer or best friend from middle school does. And it doesn't matter if you, the editor, works for a fashion magazine, the person is just sure you can get their 3rd cousin's manucript about beet farming published. Many people have asked me if I could read their manuscript to somehow get them published. Perhaps some writers and editors out there have sway. (If you know them, could you please introduce me to them? My personal trainer is trying to get published.) But the rest of us are just as powerless as you. (Though I always do love talking about writing and ideas.)

5. "So what is it you actually do?" Many people have no idea what an editor actually does. If someone reads a book and can't imagine what the editor had to do with it at all, that book probably had a good editor. For the signs of a good editor is no sign at all. It's only when we read a bad book that we are reminded what editors do (and I don't mean add commas). But I've already written at length about that here.

And now a couple of my favorite book/writing quotes:

"It [a book] is now a thing inside him [an author] pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It's like being in love." C.S. Lewis, "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said"

"It is a relief to turn from that topic to another story that I never wrote. Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I have ever written." G.K. Chesteron, The Everlasting Man

"It is usual to speak in a playfully apologetic tone about one's adult enjoyment of what are called 'children's books'. I think the convention a silly one. No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. A mature palate will probably not much care for creme de menthe: but it ought still to enjoy bread and butter and honey." C.S. Lewis, "On Stories"

I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight,
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
"The Author to Her Book," Anne Bradstreet

"Books...are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with 'em, then we grow out of 'em and leave 'em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development." Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Trust in God ... and His Laws

When I was in college, I had a friend, Daryl, who jokingly said that his car ran on the Holy Spirit, to justify his ever-lower gas tank. One night, the Holy Spirit ran out. We had gone to a formal event and the three girls who had piled in his back seat got out to push the car in our high heels and party dresses.

Now Daryl was just being funny, but I think this is a perfect analogy of how many Christians sometimes live their lives recklessly or passively and call it "just trusting in God."

I watched a video today of a nice family in Tennessee who has 18 children. They don't believe in birth control, so they decided to "just trust in God" that he would bless them with however many children he wanted them to have. They thought that might be one or two. So far, it's 18.

Now, I'm not saying at all that this particular family is reckless, and I think it's just fine if you don't believe in birth control. But it's a perfect illustration of my point: While we can certainly trust in God, we can also trust in God's universe to run in the way that he has created it to run. As it turns out, God created a very productive reproductive system that, with some exceptions, seems to do pretty well for itself.

But, moving away from birth control, I think we can take what we call "trusting in God" to the extreme of not taking responsibility for our actions. God created "laws" in this universe, by which I mean simply the observable order of nature, such as gravity and physics and reproduction, because it seems that God wanted a world of order not of chaos. Moral laws also exist which have consequences.

"These statements [laws] do not rest on human consent; they are either true or false. If they are true, man runs counter to them at his own peril. He may, of course, defy them, as he may defy the law of gravitation by jumping off the Eiffel Tower, but he cannot abolish them by edict. Nor yet can God abolish them, except by breaking up the structure of the universe, so that in this sense they are not arbitrary laws. We may of course argue that the making of this kind of universe, or indeed of any kind of universe, is an arbitrary act; but, given the universe as it stands, the rules that govern it are not freaks of momentary caprice. There is a difference between saying: "If you hold your finger in the fire you will get burned" and saying, "if you whistle at your work I shall beat you, because the noise gets on my nerves." The God of the Christians is too often looked upon as an old gentleman of irritable nerves who beats people for whistling. This is the result of a confusion between arbitrary "law" and the "laws" which are statements of fact. ...Defy the commandments of the natural law, and the race will perish in a few generations; co-operate with them, and the race will flourish for ages to come. That is the fact; whether we like it or not, the universe is made that way. ...Because God has made the world like this and will not alter it, therefore you must not worship your own fantasies, but pay allegience to the truth." - Dorothy L. Sayers "The Mind of the Maker"

When we jump off a building, we know we will smash into the ground. We know that if we drive 75 miles an hour on ice, physics may cause us to smash into the guardrail. The order of nature is a beautiful thing, but how often do we pray to God against it? We drive way too fast in a snowstorm and just "trust in God" that he will keep us safe - in reality praying that he would supernaturally intervene and counteract his natural order in order to save us from phsyics.

If I were God, which I'm not, I would be very annoyed at people who willfully made stupid decisions then prayed that I would eliminate the consequences. God often does not spare us the consequences of our actions. Yes, he's gracious and kind and loving, but he doesn't pander to stupidity by making every bad choice we make turn into flowers and puppies. That would be bad parenting, and it would be bad for the universe and free will.

I think part of the problem is our haphazard view of miracles and our use of the word. These days, everything is a miracle to most people based on how we talk. This person's life was saved by doctors, that baby was born, there was a sunrise this morning.

Babies are not miracles. They are, in fact, the exact opposite of a miracle. A miracle is God intervening into nature to change the natural order of things. A baby is the most natural thing in the world. A man and a woman have sex and a baby is created. The earth rotates and the sun rise is new every morning. That's how God created the world. That doesn't belittle the worth of a baby or a sunrise. They are amazing. But they are not miracles. They are the working out of a beautifully complex world that God has created.

Because we mistakenly see "miracles" everywhere, which are not the result of supernatural intervention but of natural order, we are prone to ask for them right and left. "I didn't study or go to class for several weeks, but I'm just trusting in God to help me do good on the test." "I eat fried chicken for every meal and haven't exercised in a year, but I'm just trusting in God that he'll protect me from diabetes."

God still does miracles, certainly, but he does them to bring himself glory, not to rid our lives of consequences.

Another symptom of what we mean by "just trusting God" is passivity. "Just let go, and let God" and "Jesus, take the wheel" can be needed sentiments, perhaps, when we are living our lives outside of obedience to God. But often they can result in a mindset that construes passivity as spirituality. Sometimes I've heard people say, "I'm just waiting on God to take this struggle away from me." Well, honey, he's waiting on you to just obey him! is what I often want to say, but don't. God doesn't want a world of spiritual babies that are magically rescued from every trouble, He wants a world of men and women of character, growing in uprightness. No consequences=no personal responsibility=no character=no Christ-like people.

A good example of how passivity can be called spirituality is my husband's employment situation. At some point, after looking long and not finding a job, we decided something needed to change. He decided to pursue starting a small business, since he wasn't being hired by anyone else. Now, the "just trusting" camp might say Mike taking action was him taking hold of the reins and wresting control of his life from God. I disagree. I believe God gave Mike a mind in order to make decisions and take action in life. Mike starting a business wasn't a lack of "waiting on God," but rather the very noble act of taking a risk to provide for his family. Often when we say we're "just trusting in God," we are actually sitting on our duffs when God has made his will for how to live life clear in the Bible.

Mike himself was wondering whether starting the business was something he should do, both in a practical sense (is this a good business idea) and in the general sense (is this what I should do with my life). Mike, like many of us often do, was hoping for some mystical pronouncement and assurance from heaven. So he went to talk to our pastor. Pastor Barry was able to lay out God's will pretty easily without much waiting or speculating. "One, you've gotta eat. Two, you've gotta work. If this will let you achieve those two things, my real question is, what are you waiting for?" They say that God wrote two books: the Bible and Nature, to teach people about him and about his will. If waiting and trusting in God means passively ignoring the lessons God has already actively laid out for you (provide for your family, work as unto the Lord, sticking your hand in the fire will get you burnt, and sex causes babies), you're not really trusting in God, you're ignoring him.

We can trust in God. He is good and trustworthy. But that doesn't mean that God will make our bad choices into a bed of roses or that we ought to "wait on God" for a sign from heaven before obeying his clear and direct commands in the Bible. We can always trust in God, but we can also trust that he is going to allow the laws of nature he created to do what they are supposed to do.

Now let's end on a lighter note with some comedy on the matter - it gets good around 0:50.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

My New Window Seat

Well, our bedroom makeover continues. After fixing the ceiling, trim and paint, we were a bit tired and took a two-month hiatus. Now we're back with style. Our bedroom window had a tantalizing but small ledge in front of it, taunting me by saying, "Oh, look how cute I am, come sit on me!" Then when I would oblige to look out on the hills, it would very rudely point out how large my backside was in comparison with its dainty girth. So we wanted to salvage this wasted space to create a nice window seat that wouldn't insult my bum.

Here's a pic that shows the old window ledge from afar. And here it was yesterday:

Step 1: We measured my backside to see how much extra space it needed.
Step 2: I went on a diet.

Step 3: We bought a big piece of wood from Lowe's and cut it to to right shape and size, adding 7 extra inches to the width of the seat.

Step 4: We bought a 2-inch thick cushion from Hobby Lobby and cut it to fit, then glued it to the wood with wood glue and helped it to set with a bunch of heavy books.

Step 5: We bought some heavy-duty fabric at Joann's reminiscent of sand (as this is still supposed to be a Kauai themed room). We very carefully cut and stapled the fabric over the cushion and wood. Then glued the whole thing down to the ledge.

Step 6: We bought corbels (supports) and trim at Lowe's, cut the trim to fit, then painted them white. We nailed them in and, voila!

The only thing I don't love is that our trim is so thick that you can't see the corbels very well when standing (I took that last picture sitting on the floor).

We're still on the hunt for pillows. These are some experimental pillows from Walmart, which I like, but we'd still like to find a palm leaf pillow. We figure we did this all for under $100 and 1 1/2 days of work! We tested it last night and it's long and wide enough to sleep on! Now I'm ready to curl up and read a book.

Balancing Freedom and Commitment to the Church

In my time as a church-goer, I've experienced two separate extremes when it comes to attitudes towards church: On the one hand, a lack of a real committed relationship that the church body is supposed to have, and on the other hand a tunnel vision toward one church or movement that results in legalism.

Everyone has such different experiences that it can sometimes be hard to communicate in a way that spans our diverse experiences. So I'll just take my two little grains of salt and examine them.

I have been a part of six churches over the course of my lifetime. Not because I'm a hopper, but primarily because of moves. I have attended Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, Great Commission, Anglican, and non-denominational community churches. And in almost all of these, there seems to be a leaning toward one of the two extremes people fall into: either legalistically committed or driftingly uncommitted.

It's easy to see in Acts and the New Testament that the church was meant to be a family - a body - a group of people who live their lives committed to one another in love. In fact, the words of Acts show it was pretty extreme, that many today would call cult-like: "All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people." Acts 2:42-47

That is a serious level of commitment. They met every day. They shared all they had. In short, they were a huge part of one another's lives. They knew each other and they shared life together.

How hard is this to find in modern-day American churches? I live in a city with many churches the size of cities. Being big isn't bad, but it's not uncommon to hear people bemoan the fact that it's just so hard to get involved or get to know anyone in the church or feel like they are a part of something. I think God builds most of us with the desire to "be a part of something," but that can be hard in many of the diffuse church environments around us.

What seems to be common is that churches (big or small) can cease to be a body. They can be a place we attend on Sundays but that don't constitute a major part of our lives. The fellow church members don't necessarily know you or your problems and therefore have very little to do with your real life. You go to your friends or coworkers or families for "real" life.

I don't think this is how God intended it. He didn't want us to be attenders, he wanted us to be a body.

On the other hand, there can be other church or movements who don't struggle with a lack of commitment, but with a legalistic tendency toward their own particular "body." It's taking a good thing, but taking it too far. It's the way of the slippery slope that we humans are so woefully prone to. It starts with, "this is a good church," (or movement or philosophy or whatever) and moves to "this is the best church," to "this is the only real church."

Of course, we would never say this out loud, but it lies in our attitudes. There's nothing new under the sun, and, despite our claims of exclusivity, this attitude is surprisingly common. It's the attitude of, "those other churches are OK, I guess, but it's us, the Southern Baptists, who really love Jesus" or "those other Christians are well-meaning, but it's us, the Reformed, who really know the Scriptures," or "those other movements are OK, but it's us (enter your ministry of choice here), who are really spreading the Gospel.

I'm not a universalist, saying all churches are equal and good, but this slippery slope leads to legalism and extra-biblical attitudes. It can lead to the belief that "if you leave this church, you are leaving God," which elevates membership in a particular church above the salvation we gain in Christ through grace alone. It can lead to group-think and setting up standards for everyone to follow that are not in the Bible, such as a ban on drinking or dating, thus stealing our freedom in Christ. But most important of all, it places allegiance to a particular church above allegiance to Christ and it buries the core message of the gospel, salvation through Christ, in legalism - the exact opposite of grace.

I've spent my life at both ends of the extreme. At one point, I believed that I could never leave one particular church movement because that was where God was really working. Then I spent several years at the other extreme, licking my wounds of legalism in ambivalence towards church. Mike and I finally found what we think is our happy balance, a church where we could be a part of a body and family but also a church where there was a healthy view of the global church.

Which side do you think you land on? Without a church home or a feeling of detachment from the church? Would calling the church your family make you laugh? Or are you more on the side of putting one local church or movement on too high a pedastal that Christ never gave it? It's a touchy subject, and one I don't approach lightly, but one that I think is so important to reflect on. In my experience, these cultures and attitudes are often promulgated by the people of the church itself and not necessarily by the leaders. Therefore it's something that you and I can help respond to by cultivating a healthy attitude ourselves.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Crazy Canadian Shut-In, Day 2


So it's my second day as a shut-in, and I can barely restrain my exuberant enthusiasm. I love it, love it, love it. I liked my old job (it was amazing), but I feel like I'm doing what I was made to do. Granted, it's only been 2 days, but I've always been one to jump to conclusions.

Writing just comes naturally to me, so it doesn't feel like I'm working. It doens't stress me out, and I get such a tidy feeling of satisfaction when I finish an assignment.

Today I was able to do laundry on my breaks. Perhaps this doesn't sound exciting to you, but I feel so blissfully back in my proper place as despot of the home. (My father-in-law likes to point out that one of the words used in the Bible to describe women in the home is "despotos," or something like that.) One of the reasons it was so hard for me not to become Suzie Homemaker after my unsuccessful attempt at getting an MRS degree in college was that I love taking care of a home. If I'm working a stressful job and have little free time, then I hate taking care of it and I feel all out of whack. Now I'm in whack.

For lunch, I ate blackberries and aged gouda and spinach feta bread. I could have eaten this at work, but I was never organized enough to do so. Good food brings me joy. In fact, today I even started a homemade marinara sauce a-simmerin' while I worked on an assignment. My immersion blender hasn't seen any action in years. In fact all my kitchen implements have been sitting around: flabby, fat and lazy; I walked in, and oopsa-daisy!

When Mike finished work, I had a nice dinner waiting for him: pasta with homemade marinara and red pepper-garlic sausage. It's amazing how a simple dish of pasta can exhilerate the soul.

Besides laundry and culinary masterpieces, I took a 30 minute hike with Mike at Ute Valley Park over lunch. I love my neighborhood.

I feel like I did back in college when I worked at the Y in Estes Park and was able to hike through the majestic Rocky Mountain National Park every day. I know I've written dreamily of those times many times before, but there's just something about the freedom to be surrounded by nature that makes me exalt in life, the creation and the Creator. I'm a simple girl, with simple pleasures.

So, thank you, God, for giving me this job, and thank you, Canada, for doing God's bidding! :)


"I felt in my bones, first that this world does not explain itself...Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art...Third, I thought the purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects, such as dragons. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them...And last, and strangest, there had come into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin. Man had saved his goods as Crusoe saved his goods: he had saved them from a wreck."

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Crazy Shut-In

Well, it was my first day as a crazy shut-in. I've been getting nervous as so many people keep telling me, "Oh, I could never work at home!" or "Oh, that will be so hard to not be around people!" But then I remember that I'm not them, I'm me. I'm an introverted homebody who likes to smell the roses.

I didn't smell any roses today, but I did watch the bunny all day, which is just as good. I discovered why a plank in our fence keeps getting pushed out - it's the bunny's passageway from yard to yard. I also took a nice stroll along the hillside on this beautiful January day, and unloaded the dishwasher and unpacked from my weekend trip (yes, four days later). I feel more in control of my life already.

So besides frittering about with bunnies and dishes, what did I actually do for work? I edited a story about malaria for a web site. And I translated a 39-page hydro-geological survey written by an engineering firm into normal people talk. It reminded me of Office Space: "What would you say ya do here?" "Well look, I already told you. I deal with the customers so the engineers don't have to! I have people skills! I am good at dealing with people! Can't you understand that? What the h**l is wrong with you people?"

In short, I took a paragraph like this: The weathering of fractured bedrock zones result in the development of clay pockets which have a much lower electrical resistivity than the surrounding bedrock. This geological structure, due to the preferential effect of the weathering on the tectonised axes, can easily be located by electrical resistivity profiles method.

And rewrote it like this: They took a look-see to find out if the land was good to done dig in.

This is why I make the big bucks. Speaking of big bucks, Mike and I will now be living on a reduced income, so we'll be eating only ramen. Do any of you have good ramen recipes? Or other cost efficient recipes you'd like to share?

I'll also be starting a book club to help this crazy shut-in get out. I love book clubs, but I'm very picky about my books. So I figure I can just start a club and rule it like a tyrant, controlling what books we read. Already the few members of my book club have started suggesting books, but I must keep the peasants down with my totalitarian rule. Do you have any good book club suggestions to keep the commoners down with?

If you answer one of my two questions today, el cheapo recipes or book club books, you could be entered to win a fabulous prize: Think by John Piper, a Christmas gift we read and are ready to pass on.

If no one responds but Liz, then I will love her more than the rest of you, but I will wait to pass on the book until I have a more scintillating question to seduce comments out of you with bribery.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Today was my last day in my current position as Field Assignments Something or Other at Compassion International. I'm not usually a weepy person, but as I read the emails from all my coworkers around the world and hugged friends goodbye, I experienced that familiar tightening of my throat and pricking in my eyes.

One of my coworkers, Tonny in Indonesia, sent me a message in which he quoted Green Day (gotta love that) and then said, "You never leave someone behind, you take a part of them with you and leave a part of yourself behind."

I usually eschew platitudes in my snobbishness, but this one struck me as beautifully true today.

I have been thinking lately: What is my legacy? A legacy isn't just something we leave when we die, but something we are creating and leaving every day. We are leaving bits of ourselves behind us, like a trail of crumbs that others find.

In my job, I've enjoyed looking back and seeing the crumbs I've left behind. In sending weekly writing tips to our field countries, I basically wrote a 120-page book on writing. I compiled it and sent it to them as my gift before leaving. I've enjoyed seeing how an Indian computer programmer has learned to tell stories to a Western audience.

Looking back and moving forward, I also hope to leave a legacy of grace - seeds of kindness and encouragement and support scattered along the path I walk. I fail too often and leave seeds of pride and conceit and self-centeredness that I hope the frost of time will wither. But I also hope that God will continue to remind me of how I impact people every day I live by the small choices I make, words I say, and actions I take.

When I think of what I take with me from my time working with people from 26 field countries, they have taught me to chill out. I am the epitome of the time-obsessed Westerner, but from all these "hot culture" countries I've learned to embrace a more island attitude toward life. I've learned to find a more happy time balance - remembering that people are ultimately more important than time...though I still always make my deadlines.

I have also learned how vast and wide are the experiences and cultures in this world, yet each is so unique and beautiful in its own way. God is at work in many places and through many people in the world. We have no corner on that, praise God!

I've also learned so much perspective for daily life. In America, we live sooooooooooo good. The realization of how good we live has been brought back to me today on this anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti.

A coworker, Dan Wooley, was trapped in the Haiti earthquake last year and wrote a book about his experiences. In the first pages, he describes Ephraim, my coworker in Haiti. I remember when I first met Ephraim he said, "If you ever meet me, you'll know me because I'm the one who's always smiling and always wearing a straw hat." So Dan's words brought a smile to my face.

My coworkers in Haiti have had a devastating year. One of them had to dig his brother's body out of the rubble many days after the quake. But though they may not smile as much as they did before, they have resilient faith. What else do they have? They believe that God is good and that he is the most important aspect of life in a way that makes my faith seem shallow and hollow.

In my life of relative luxury, working with the field has reminded me over and over again what is important in life. Not this job or that job. Or this income or that home. Not this phone or that car. That all is ultimately meaningless, a chasing after the wind. What matters is family and loving people and most of all, our relationship with the God who created us. What a phenomenal legacy they've left me with.

On a lighter note, here is a picture with my team who had a Canada transition party for me. I'm going to miss everyone so much!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Design Help for Grandma

Hyper spiritual people probably skip out of bed in the morning, bright eyed to read their Bible. I am not one of those people. I need a little more of a shove, such as spending hundreds of dollars in order to create a quiet time nook for myself. You spiritual people are welcome to pray for my soul tonight.

So, I've been working on my little corner that I can creep to early in the morning and cuddle up with my espresso and read the Bible. I got my chair for my birthday, thanks to the fam. Then I got a snuggly blanket from Sissy Chrissy for Christmas. Then I got my new Archaeology Study Bible from Mike's grandpa for Christmas. And I got a teacup from Mike for Christmas that I've been eying for three years.

Ain't it purty? It's from a set of hand-painted Turkish dishes that I stare at every time we go to the Olive Tree Traders in Old Colorado City. We still can't afford a whole plate, but I got me a tea cup for my morning espresso.

Finally, I got a table on Amazon, with a gift card. (See above.) But it's just not right. It's too shiny and reddish and spindly. I could return it, but the price of shipping would about match the price of the table ($35).

So what should I do? I was thinking of covering it in a table cloth, but I worry that will make it too Grandma Marmy-ish. (I have been told before that I design like a grandma.) If I do, what color or type of fabric should I do? Or I could refinish it black or copper like the kitchen table or bannister, but I don't want to be too matchy-matchy.

Please help this grandma in need!

Monday, January 10, 2011

One Year Later

This week marks the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, that occurred January 12, 2010. It is perhaps fitting that my last day in my current position falls on this day, as so much of my work has revolved around it in this past year.

If you are interested, here is an article I wrote regarding the recovery efforts, and here is a web site using a lot of the content I've worked hard to help gather over the past year.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Weekend Update

This weekend was a return to our old haunts, with the maiwage of Jon the Hart. After the rehearsal dinner on Friday, we got to hang out with the Swans and their baby Emery, who turned 1 today. Happy Birthday, Emery! (photo credit: Travis B. Swan.)

On Saturday, I got to relive old times with Becca Hillbilly (old roommate) and the Eggs (who are moving to Kansas), and go to an Amsterdam team reunion. So funny to see where we all ended up. We made s'mores at the Swans, who keep a steady supply of graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows on hand. (Photo credit: Travis P. Swan.)

Sunday was the much awaited wedding of Jon the Hart, Mike's good friend from college. It was winter themed, with this beautiful winter cake of mountains and pine trees sculpted in it.

There was a nice layer of snow to make the photos purty. Mike was a groomsman and enjoyed waddling around in the snow like a penguin.

I got to see old friends like Jen and Naomi, and dance like it was 1999.

And Jon successfully got 'er done.

Now we are stuck at my sister's in Denver thanks to this lovely snow.

Friday, January 7, 2011

British Animals

In case your head is hurting after reading Sayers' writing, here's a much lighter piece of British entertainment as my gift to you on this fine Friday.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Free Will and Miracle

I just finished The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers, a fascinating little book, though a bit too brainy for me. (I have to read it sitting next to either a dictionary or my husband.) In it, she writes about the Trinity and creation from the perspective of a writer - using the analogy of writing a book to represent God's creation of the universe and his relationship with us.

I loved her insight into free will vs. miracle and "the problem of pain" from this perspective. Without further ado, here is my favorite part:

"[There is a] permanently baffling problem, the free will of the creature. All characters, from the most important to the least, and from the best to the worst, must express some part of the maker's mind if they are to be a living creation; but if all express that mind in an identical way, the work as a whole becomes dull, mechanical, and untrue. At this point we begin to see faintly the necessity for some kind of free will among the creatures of a perfect creation...

Whatever we may think of the possibilities of direct divine intervention in the affairs of the universe, it is quite evident that the writer can - and often does - intervene at any moment in the development of his own story; he is absolute master, able to perform any miracle he likes...He can twist either character or plot from the course of its nature by an exertion of arbitrary abrupt conversions, or bring about accidents or convulsions of nature to rescue the characters from the consequences of their own conduct. He can, in fact, behave exactly as, in our more egotistical and unenlightened petitions, we try to persuade God to behave. Whether we mock at miracles or demand miracles, this is the kind of miracle we usually mean. We mean that the judgment of natural law is to be abrogated by some power extraneous to the persons and circumstances.

If we by analogy call God "the Creator" we are thereby admitting that it is possible for Him to work miracles; but if we examine more closely the implications of our analogy, we may be driven to ask ourselves how far it is really desirable that He should do anything of the kind. For the example of the writers who indulge in miracle is not altogether encouraging. "Poetic justice" (the name often given to artistic miracle-mongering) may be comforting, but we regretfully recognize that it is very bad art. "Poetic justice" is indeed the wrong name to give it, since it is neither poetry nor justice; there is a true poetic justice, which we know better by the name of "tragic irony," which is of the nature of judgment and is the most tremendous power in literature as in life - but in that there is no element of miracle...

The agents of the miraculous which the novelist has at his command are, roughly speaking, conversion and coincidence; either a character or a situation is abruptly changed, not by anything developing out of the essentials of the story, but by the personal divine intervention of the creator... [But] it is necessary that God should act in conformity with His own character. The study of our analogy will lead us perhaps to believe that God will be chary of indulging in irrelevant miracle, and will use it only when it is an integral part of the story. He will not, any more than a good wrtier, convert his characters without preparing the way for their conversion, and His interferences with space-time will be conditioned by some kind of relationship of power between will and matter.

Consequences cannot be separated from their causes without a loss of power; and we may ask ourselves how much power would be left in the story of the crucifixion, as a story, if Christ had come down from the cross. That would have been an irrelevant miracle, whereas the story of the resurrection is relevant, leaving the consequences of action and character still in logical connection with their causes. It is, in fact, an outstanding example of the development we have already considered - the leading of the story back, by the new and more powerful way of grace, to the issue demanded by the way of judgment, so that the law of nature is not destroyed but fulfilled."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Everything Happens For A...

...Pickle. I think "Everything happens for a pickle" would be a better phrase than "Everything happens for a reason." I don't know how many times I hear this phrase used at work, at the grocery store, at church. Virtually everywhere you go, you hear this sentiment bandied about. It's a romantic thing to say, but is it true? It sounds spiritual, but is it biblical?

This philosophy, which is so popular in pop culture with our vague and smooshy ideas of karma and destiny, has infiltrated its way into the thinking of mainstream Christians. It seems to go hand in hand with our use of "God is in control" and "God has a plan" which both relate to an over-simplification of the relationship between God's sovereignity and free will.

It's understandable that we fall into such thinking, because it's always easier to think in a simplistic way than it is to think in a balanced way.

"Everything happens for a reason" is often said to comfort ourselves or others when something undesirable has happened. It's the idea that there is some force in the universe - God or karma or some other mystic force like destiny - shaping every event in the world, ordaining and ordering them in a perfect way. It's the philosophy of romantic comedies, like "Serendipity," "Fools Rush In" and "Only You," which make for good girl movies, but for bad philosophy. It's the philosophy of Voltaire's Candide, that this is the best of all possible worlds because everything that happens is the perfect plan of some great hand above.

But Candide showed this world view to be patently absurd. We know from experience, common sense, and the Bible that this is not the best of all possible worlds, but in fact really screwed up.

Implicit in the idea that "everything happens for a reason" is that every bad thing that happens was supposed to happen. This idea implies that God has actively orchestrated all the bad in this world. But this is simply not true. We know that things happen that God did not want us to choose - like child abuse and hate and adultery. If I had an affair, you wouldn't comfort Mike saying, "Oh, everything happens for a reason, honey!" The reason it happened was that I made a bad choice that God clearly didn't want me to make. (And when we use this trite phrase to comfort someone, it has the very uncomforting effect of dismissing the very real pain and tragedy of this life.)

The two oft quoted verses on the topic (which I absolutely adore) are Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28. In Genesis 50, Joseph's brothers were bad dudes. They sold him into slavery because they were jealous of him. But even though the brothers did this awful thing, God used their actions to save the nation of Israel from famine:

"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." Genesis 50:20

In Romans 8:28, Paul exhorts Christians who are suffering and facing persecution: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

Isn't it incredible to know that God is actively working to redeem this fallen world? But that's exactly what it is - God working to redeem this fallen world and the fell things that happen. It isn't some fairies and puppies version of Christian destiny.

Probably the opposite catch phrase from "everything happens for a reason" is "S**t happens." So on the one hand, there is the nihilistic philosophy that bad stuff happens and this world just pretty much sucks. On the other hand, there is the mystic philosophy that everything that happens really is part of some beautiful tapestry that was meant to be.

The truth the Bible reveals lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, bad stuff clearly happens. Horrible stuff. Stuff we weren't made to experience and God never wanted to happen. God allows them to happen, but God does not will sin. This is the mystery of free will in a world that God is sovereign over. I think we must tread lightly here.

In some cases, there is scriptural support that God allowed things to happen in order for a certain line of events to take place (like Joseph's story and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart). But I think we take this too far when we as Christians adopt this mystic philosophy of destiny.

We live in a world in which the Creator blessed us with free will, rather than creating robots. With that, unfortunately, comes a whole lot of dreadful things. But we also live in a world in which God will redeem all that happens to serve his purposes (not ours) - in one way or another. For although we live in a "dark world" for a time, we know that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him."

Monday, January 3, 2011

Random Frivolity

Hmm, was that last post a bit too long and abstract? I think so. I'll remedy it by offering some snippets of random frivolity.

Like this audio clip from the Onion: (Skip the first 14 seconds to miss the commercial.)

And this article from 5280 debunking and validating myths about Colorado.

And why not another audio clip?

And, lastly, a random and frivolous fact. I recently found out that Mike always wanted to be a skater. A figure skater. Like Brian Boitano. I've been married to him 7 years and I'm just now finding this out. It's really messing with me.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Exclusive or Objective Truth

Every year Compassion creates a calendar to send to sponsors with pictures of cute children and Bible verses or quotes for each month. A good friend of mine chooses what text will be in the calendar. Last year, she faced an unexpected firestorm because she included quotes from Ghandi and Princess Diana. We received letter upon letter asking how we, a Christian ministry, could quote non-Christians.

Whether or not Compassion should use non-Christian quotes is not what I'd like to write about. Instead, I'd like to talk about the underlying assumption in many Christians' thinking that no one knows truth except for Christians.

Some of you might read that last line and get very worried. In our fear of relativism and tolerance, some of us Christians have gone so far as to say that if someone does not know the Ultimate Truth (Jesus), then they cannot know any truth. Or, even if we don't quite say it, we act like it's true. But asserting that people who aren't Christians can be right about moral or philosophical matters (that Ghandi had some things to say worth listening to, for example), isn't relativism. It's not wishy washy "tolerance" to say that Ghandi may have a handle on the truth (at least certain parts of it); it's an affirmation of belief in an absolute and universal truth that is knowable to all.

Here is the rub, which my husband so insightfully pointed out the other day: On the one hand, Christians can be quick to say, "Christians are the only ones with truth! You can't understand love or goodness unless you know Christ." While on the other hand they are quick to say, "God's truth is clear in his creation so that no one is with excuse!" based on Romans 1:19-20: "For what can be known about God is plain to them [ungodly and unrighteous men], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse."

So on the one hand we say, "Only we have truth!", which is an exclusive view of truth, and on the other hand we say, "The truth is clear to all!", which is an objective view of truth. We can't have it both ways. The two are clearly in conflict. Either the truth is something you can only discover by becoming a Christian, or the truth is just something that is out there for everyone to see. If you believe the first view, non-Christians can't be blamed for their sin because there's no way they could have known the truth.

The second view of truth is the biblical view of truth. The truth is out there for everyone to see, so no one is with excuse. We just don't want to see it. By saying this, I am in no way saying that everyone is right about what they believe and and we can all hold hands and sing Kum Ba Ya because we all have truth. Far from it. What I am saying is that God's truths are clear throughout the world and people, whether or not they have come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, have access to that truth and can embrace it (or reject it).

Several years ago I read a book by the Dalai Lama. There were some things in it that I agreed with, namely the high value he placed on selflessly loving other people. The inherent value of selfless love is an objective truth. I am not a Buddhist, and I disagree with Buddhism's tennets. But even if the Four Truths of Buddhism are not in fact true and even if the Eightfold Path of Buddhism is the wrong path, that doesn't mean that no Buddhist person ever had a concept of real truth. Should we all then run out and read the Dalai Lama's book on how to find happiness, then? No. If you do read texts from other belief systems, do it with a spirit of discernment. By weighing what we read against the truth the Bible has revealed, we can better understand not only the uniqueness of the gospel, but also the common threads among us that can hopefully draw us toward the Ultimate Truth of Jesus.

I think the fault in our thinking lies in thinking of truth as an all or nothing proposition rather than as a continuum. The way some people talk seems to imply that a person is walking along in life and before they are a Christian they possess zero wisdom, zero knowledge of the truth (moral or otherwise). Then they become a Christian, and plop! all the truth in the world falls into their lap. This is demonstrably untrue. I believe that our understanding of truth is a continuum:

A person walks along in life, and before they know Christ they may believe a great many lies. They might be confused about a good number of things. But they most likely also believe a number of truths that are "clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world." For example, they might believe that it's wrong to kill and good to be kind. Or that it's wrong to steal and good to be generous. These are universal moral truths.

Then at some point that person comes to know the Ultimate Truth, Jesus. At that point, the most important aspect of Truth becomes known to them. But truth is a big thing. They don't suddenly,at the moment of salvation, gain and possess all wisdom and truth. It's a continuum. Some of it they had before, the most important part (especially for their salvation) they just learned, and more and more of it will be gained over time. It's an eternal pursuit.

C.S. Lewis once remarked that the myth of Jesus being nothing but a radical moral teacher was one of the easiest to debunk. By and large, almost all the moral teachers have had the same basic message of what the moral law is, and Jesus was completely in agreement with the Law. If Jesus had just been a moralist, he wouldn't have made many headlines. It wouldn't have been a shock, especially to the Jews, if Jesus had turned up and told everyone to follow the Law and be good to one another. It was His solution to the law, the message of his divinity and salvation by faith in his person and his saving power that was shocking. The basic truths of the moral law were out there, so no one had excuse, and they're just as true whether I said them or Moses said them or Ghandi said them.

So, apart from the fact that it's not the true, Biblical view, why is it important to avoid the exclusivist attitude toward truth that asserts I have all knowledge and they who are outside have none? Quite, because it's bad for the gospel. Besides the fact that it makes you sound like an arrogant schmuck, it can alienate a potential follower of Christ rather than bringing them closer to belief in God's Truth. God may have opened a door in their heart by letting them grasp one of the important moral truths, such as the beauty of peace or the the importance of family or the value of courage.

Don't go around alienating people and smashing what precious bits of truth they have grasped just so you can trumpet how you have access to the "real truth." God may be able to use your common ground to help you bring that person to Christ. Some of the greatest heroes of the modern faith were led to Christ because they found a crumb of important truth that led them to the greatest truth of all. C.S. Lewis himself was haunted by a love for the mysterious longing he called "joy" and entranced by the goodness he felt in the children's books of G.K. Chesterton. It was the stories of goodness and meaning that entranced him, until one day his friend (Tolkien) explained that there was a real story where the shadows he loved became real.

Don't reject the truths that God has put into the world and the hearts of men, embrace them. If you have a Buddhist friend, you can say, "Hey, what about Buddhism attracts you?" If she says, "I really like the Dalai Lama's teachings on love," then you can talk about your common belief that loving others is good and then move into discussing how your beliefs differ, which they very much do. Truth is a continuum. All of us started out on one end of it and want to get to the other end. And the way to help other people to get further isn't to try to knock down or reject the real progress that they have made. It's to recognize where they have gone right (and gone wrong) and assist them to the next, and hopefully biggest, step.

Written with help from Mikey pants.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Resolution

It's that time of year again when we look back wistfully and look forward hopefully. The last two new year's I was doing dynamic things, like refinishing tables and doing scientific research at Hooters. This new year is much less auspicious, as I lay in my bed at 11:30 am with an awful headache. Next time I feel tempted to host a New Years party, someone please remind me that this means I have to stay awake past 10 p.m.

So now I lay here, invalid that I am, thinking about resolutions for the new year. I am both very good at and very bad at resolutions. Good in that I usually succeed at meeting them because I'm more neurotic than a border collie. Bad in that I'm more neurotic than a border collie and will drive myself and my husband coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs. So I have to be careful when setting goals for my life.

Like my friend, who set a goal and read 75 books last year. I love books (and achievement), so I want to do this. But when I suggested the idea to Mike, he just shook his head at me, as we both know it would simply make me more neurotic. Or like this friend who meditated on one Proverb every day of 2010 and blogged about it. Or like this friend who is setting out to memorize Philippians this spring.

(In my own experience, I've always found Scripture memorization to not be all that it's cracked up to be. (Gasp, did I just say that out loud?!) I find that the Scripture I memorize doesn't last with me more than a year, unless I am often reviewing everything I memorized, which becomes impractical as you memorize more and more. But primarily, I find that rote memorization doesn't imbue the verses with meaning to me, which makes it simply rote - like memorizing the multiplication table. But if I read Scripture enough to simply know it, I remember it, and as my reading usually has meaning for me, it sticks with me. Does anyone else have this experience? I'm not trying to rain on Scripture memorization's parade, I'm just wondering if anyone else has had this experience or if I'm just a bad person.)

Of course, there's also the fitness-related goals, and Mr. and Mrs. Ice Cream Store Owners certainly need to get their gelato bellies back on track, but I've also found that focusing on a healthy lifestyle is more effective in my life than physical goals.

So this year, I have settled on perhaps the most boring new year's resolution that has ever been set: Cleaning!

I grew up in the most immaculate home imaginable. Picture the cleanest place you've ever been. My parent's home is cleaner than that. They make me kind of sick. They both work full-time jobs, yet manage to always have their lives in sparkling order. They imbued in me a great love for cleanliness. But I'm afraid the lessons about hard cleaning didn't stick with me. I hate cleaning. I have made it through the past 7 1/2 years of marriage because Mike has done the cleaning, as he had more time for it.

But now with the ice cream store, the baton is being passed to me. Or rather, the baton has been fumbled these past 6 months of being entrepreneurs, and you wouldn't want to be eating off our floor. Our house is much like Holden Caulfield's roommate in The Catcher in the Rye. From far away, he's good looking and looks put together, but close up you notice his razor is rusty. Our house is always picked up, as we're not clutter-bugs, but we struggle to get the hard cleaning (like vacuuming, dusting, etc.) done.

But now, I am striking out anew! I shall rise up from my dirty floors to a new tomorrow of cleanliness! I started the year out right by cleaning out the fridge, microwave and oven yesterday. Feels so good. I'm going to start a chart with all my cleaning tasks on it, so I will stay on track. I grew up with a cleaning chart as a kid, and for every task I completed, I got a nickel. It is very telling that of all the possessions I've saved from growing up (which aren't many), that cleaning chart is one of them.

But I need help. I need organization. I need motivation to get out of my bed at 11:30 am. So all you happy homekeepers - How do you manage to have order in your home? Do you have any schedule you use to clean? Do you want to come clean my home for free for a year? (It's worth a try.)