Thursday, May 31, 2012

Praying in the Dry Times

I have been thinking about prayer the last few days. I was taught in the churches I grew up in that a mature disciple prays daily as part of a regular time of devotion or “quiet time.” I have, by and large, maintained such a practice through most of my life. Now, as at certain other points in my journey, I find these devotional times to be difficult because I do not find them to bring renewed perspective or deeper insight. Often I feel like I am just going through the motions, and I was also taught that this is not something we want to do as true disciples.

I have been reading Eugene Petersen's book Tell It Slant and in a recent chapter found these thoughts on prayer:

“As we follow in the steps of our praying ancestors, we do not find them stopping off along the way to hold a seminar on prayer, or conducting controlled experiments to demonstrate the efficacy of prayer. They are preparing for the way of the Lord, following 'the Jesus Way.' They don't take time out to pray. Praying is what they are doing as they are preparing, as they are following. (emphasis mine)

Can a faithful, mature disciple of Jesus maintain a healthy spiritual (and overall) life without setting aside specific time for prayer each day? Previously I would have answered with a theoretical yes but a practical no. Now I'm wondering if that is true. Does spiritual growth require something like a “quiet time” or devotional time? Certainly we are told in the Scriptures to pray without ceasing, which implies something that happens beyond just a specified time during each day. I've also been told that we should follow the example of Jesus, and the Scriptures speak of him taking time away from the intense demands on his life. However, it doesn't tell us whether this was a daily routine or something he did occasionally, as he needed to particularly recharge his spiritual vitality.

I could read books about prayer, maybe even attend a seminar on it. But that would only give me information about prayer. I've read books and heard many a fine message on prayer. But what does one do when prayer feels artificial, or forced? I don't want to be hypocritical and make a fine appearance of prayer devoid of any real substance. I like Petersen's frankness:

“The remarkable thing about prayer is not that so many people pray, but that some of us keep at it. Why do we keep praying when we have so little to show for it? Anyone who has made a practice of prayer knows the feeling, overwhelming sometimes, that prayer is a leaky bucket. You go to the river to get a pail of water and by the time you get home the water is gone, the bucket empty, and all there is left to show for your effort is a damp trail soon to be wiped out by the sun.”

Petersen acknowledges what I all-too-seldom hear in Christian circles: often the only response we get to our prayers is silence. We hear nothing from God and nothing we can do, no change in routine, method, timing, words used or anything else will change that. Petersen reminds us how often in the Psalms we hear expressions of people who are waiting for God to speak, to act, to respond. And many of them didn't get a response. Our cries, our prayers, don't force God to respond to us. I wish that were not the case, but it is and somehow I must deal with that.

Someone once told me, or maybe I read it somewhere, that when you don't feel like praying the thing to do is pray. It seems trite, simplistic even. Maybe there's a core truth in this response. When I don't feel like praying, I should keep at it anyway. I can affirm this in principle, but I do struggle with the practical application. What do I say when I feel like I have nothing to say, when nothing comes to my lips, or when I feel like I cannot adequately express myself? What do I say if I expect only silence in response?

I read a book a few years ago about Mother Teresa (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light) that revealed, through letters she wrote to others during her life, how rarely she felt the presence and nearness of Jesus. She longed for him, longed to hear from him and to know his love. But for most of her life he remained distant—silent. Nonetheless she pressed on in prayer and in the practical outworking of her faith. Some read this book and were quite disappointed to discover the weakness of this great woman. I read it and found encouragement that if one as great as her could struggle with faith, then my struggle needn't indicate spiritual failure on my part. I must read that book again.

I don't have the answers yet. Perhaps I never will. I'm allowing myself greater latitude in my practice of prayer. I try to talk with God each morning as I begin my day, but some days it doesn't happen. Sometimes I do it sitting in a chair watching the day begin. Sometimes I do it as I walk in our neighborhood. Sometimes it is more scattered, broken thoughts directed god-ward as I juggle several other activities throughout the morning. That seems to fit with Petersen's description which I quoted earlier: Prayer as something I do while I am preparing and following, not some specialized activity or time cut off from the flow of real life. Sometimes I think that I'd like to fast from praying, but I have enough doubt about doing this as a result of the teaching I've received, that I must say I'm afraid to, because I still believe in some part of me that people who don't have regular “quiet times” are obviously not really spiritual people. Yet praying out of fear, duty or obligation doesn't really seem like a great thing either.

In the book I'm reading by Petersen the second half examines Jesus' language in prayer. I'm curious to see what he has to say. Maybe I'll find some helpful insights there. I'd love to hear the practices and experiences of others. Share with me your perspectives on praying. What works for you? Have you experienced times when all you heard was silence? How did you respond to that? 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reasons to Give Thanks

All morning I've had a few lines from an old Phil Collins song in my head. He sings:

“Our sons and daughters seem to be beyond our control
The smile is fading fast. They're losing their soul.”

As the song played repeatedly in my mind, I had time to reflect on the words. I realized with thanksgiving that these words do not apply to my son and daughter. I'm blessed with two teenagers at present, a 13-year-old and a nearly-16-year-old. The journey over the past few years with the older one has been rough at times. The journey with the younger one is getting rougher. Sometimes I wonder whether I would have chosen to become a parent had I known how challenging it can be. Thankfully as I see my daughter begin to emerge from the roughest years it gives me strength and hope for my son as he now enters that same period.

Despite the hardships and the times when I want to pull my hair out or bang my head against a wall (and not only my teenagers can evoke those feelings in me!), when I stop to reflect more carefully, I realize that I have two great reasons to give thanks. My children express many typical teenage behaviours. They often inform my wife and I how embarrassing we are to them and request that we refrain from any embarrasing behaviour (which is just about anything we do!). At the same time they have also told us that parents shouldn't be boring. So we're stuck in a dilemma, since anything we do that might be interesting is also very likely potentially embarrassing to them. They can be moody, temperamental and sometimes downright exasperating. More than once I've sympathized with the advice of Mark Twain concerning teenagers.

However, when tempted to despair or lament my lot as a parent, when inclined to agree with Phil Collins, I must stop and remember the many good qualities of my children. Although they like to tell us how much we embarrass them, I think that my children still genuinely enjoy being with us. When I am away on business travel, they miss me and are glad to have me return—though they must express this with appropriate teenage reservation. During my last trip, while chatting with my daughter on Facebook, I even received one of the first direct expressions of love from her that I've had in years. Our family has the good fortune to share our meals together most evenings and we can enjoy some fun and bizarre conversations over our dinner. They are not running in crowds that are leading them into destructive or harmful behaviours. I don't wonder what my daughter is up to late at night and I have a reasonable amount of confidence that as she grows older and starts to spend more time with friends and less with us, that her own moral foundation will guide her to better decisions more often than not.

Both my son and daughter are very intelligent. My daughter is exploring and expanding her creativity through writing, drawing and painting. She is quite good and it is delightful to see her unfold her personality. My son has a more technical bent and with some focused learning could easily surpass my knowledge and understanding of computers, although at present his interest remains fixated on the world of computer gaming. Even here though I have opportunity to share in his life as we sometimes play together on the PS3 or our PCs. In most head-to-head competitions he wins, and sometimes this frustrates me, but I am learning to focus on the time spent together and allow my own competitive strike to take a back seat (or better yet, get out of the car completely.)

Sometimes I look at my children and I can see myself so clearly in them – and at times I wish this weren't so. I remember the famous words sung by Cat Stevens and echoed in the song quoted above by Phil Collins: “He'd grown up just like me, My boy was just like me.” I hope as my children grow into adulthood that they will be like me and that they will not regret that. I also hope that they will surpass me. I hope they will develop skills I never had or never fully developed. I hope that their moral character will be strong and resilient. Sometimes I worry that my failures as a parent will echo negatively throughout there lives, but then I try to remember that no parent is perfect. Despite that fact, human society has managed to continue on and has even progressed. God works with us in our real imperfection. I'm learning, ever so slowly, to accept myself as a flawed father and to celebrate my children for who they are, not lamenting that they are not who I might wish they were.

Yes, I have reason to give thanks.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Surprised by Hope

As I sat in the worship service yesterday morning (yes, in the end I did choose to go) listening to our pastor lament the decline of the United States and express his pessimism concerning the future, I understood one of the factors that leaves me uncomfortable not only with this particular worship community, but with much of conservative American evangelicalism. Despite the Good News brought to us by Jesus, we have become by and large a pessimistic people. We see the world negatively and we expect things to get worse. There is precious little hope in the messages I hear coming from the conservative wing of the American church and it not only discourages me, but I increasingly think that we fail to truly represent the Kingdom when we present such a negative outlook.

I am not saying that all is well in the world or in the United States. We face real problems and we may endure some very rough times in the years ahead. I do not affirm in any way a gospel of prosperity and success that claims that true believers will know nothing but God's blessing. The Bible clearly tells us that those who follow God will endure hardship. But I react negatively to the underlying pessimism that I hear in the conservative evangelical church. This derives in part from their worldview which sees the best years as already behind us and tries to hold on to that past rather than continuing to work for positive progress in society. It also stems from a faulty theology.

I only began to recognize this in the past few months, particularly after reading N.T. Wright's book Surprised by Hope. I have read much theology in my day, but rarely has a book impacted by theology so strongly and unexpectedly as this book did. It shifted my worldview. At the risk of oversimplifying a remarkable piece of writing, Wright says essentially that the Church, at least the evangelical wing of the Church, has come to misunderstand heaven and fails to properly affirm the central truth of bodily resurrection, with tangible effect on both our beliefs about the future and our daily lives in the present world.

Salvation, according to Wright, is not a matter of being rescued out of this world. “Salvation,” he wrights, “is not 'going to heaven' but 'being raised to life in God's new heaven and new earth'.” Salvation and resurrection and intimately intertwined. They are not just about, or even primarily about, a future outside of this place. They are about the inbreaking, transforming work of God's Kingdom in this present place; not ignoring the fallen, corrupt nature of the world but believing that God through the power of resurrection is at work now to renew and restore that fallen Creation to the glory it originally had, which will be heaven. The resurrection of Jesus marked the first step in in this process.

“The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing, close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term, in the future. And what he was promising for that future, and doing in that present, was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world present is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God's ultimate purpose—and so they could thus become colleagues and partners in that larger project.”

Wright does not speak out of a rosy-eyed optimism that ignores the real problems of the world. Nor does he assert that human effort and progress alone will result in the overcoming of these problems. He recognizes and asserts the need for God to bring about this renewal and transformation. Without God's activity there would be no hope. But, he affirms, in the resurrection of Jesus God demonstrated God's commitment to restoration. God worked in that event and continues to work in this world through those who accept the invitation into the Kingdom. We are God's co-workers, through whom God is at work in this present world, not merely preserving it long enough to save as many souls as possible before the “End,” (lest we should be “Left Behind” as a very popular but theologically inaccurate series described) but bringing about transformation that will be made complete at some point in the future when Jesus returns to culminate his reign over this world. 

When I hear pastors speak, as my pastor did yesterday, pessimistically about the future, I now compare that with the word of hope that Wright points to in the Gospel message. We, the Church, need not be pessimistic. We need not merely “hang on” and try to hold fast until we get our escape ticket out of this place. Rather we are called to participate with God in the renewal of this world in which God placed us. I can get excited about this message, much more than about a pessimistic message that says things will continue to get worse and worse and all we can do is try to save as many from this sinking ship as possible before it goes under. I wonder whether our failure to speak a message of real hope is part of what hinders people from getting excited about this message.

I don't think this is a minor matter. I see it as a major difference in one's theology that affects how we live in the present world, how we view the future and how we understand salvation. I'm sure there are churches that proclaim more clearly this message of hope. I'd like to hear it within my own worship community. I need to meditate on it more and seek to live my life in line with the positive impact this hope can give me and my world.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Lost Passion

For some time now I feel like I have been just going through the motions when it comes to the spiritual life. This is particularly the situation with attending church. I have been a regular church-goer for as long as I can remember. Of course I've missed days, even consecutive Sundays at times and I have had times when I went although I didn't really feel the desire. I can remember one period in my life when our church situation was so bad that I would have rather done almost anything than go to church. That   situation resulted less from a lack of spiritual motivation in myself and more from a very negative spiritual situation at the church we attended at that time. Eventually we did leave, though perhaps we should have done so long before we did. Neither my wife nor I give up easily – she is particularly tenacious, sometimes to a fault – and when it comes to leaving a worship community we both agree that it is not something to be done lightly. 

In my current situation I cannot say that our worship community has nearly the negative spiritual environment that the earlier one did. But I'm not fully comfortable there either. I'm not comfortable with some of the positions the church has on some issues, particularly their view of women in ministry. I'm also not comfortable with the strong inclination to a conservative social and politic agenda that I see in the members of the church and in the leadership. I've joked about putting a pro-Obama sticker on my car just to see what the rest of the church would do (and been told by my wife in no uncertain terms that this will never happen because she will not allow it!) More often than not I find the 45-minute sermons overly long and not engaging. However, there are many wonderful people in this church, people who love God and are trying to serve God as best they understand how to do this. I read about the abusive church situations that many people come out of and I realize that I cannot speak of this church environment as abusive. But I don't feel fully at peace there anymore. I see that I have changed and am changing and that I am no longer in sync with this community. So I keep attending, but mostly out of a sense of obligation and duty.

My wife and I have talked about whether we should look for another worship community. We've even got some ideas and may visit them in the coming months. But inertia works against us. We keep doing what we've done, keep going where we've gone, because we know that place and we know those people. We may feel different from them, but we know them and, so far at least, they haven't rejected our differentness.

This may seem like a trivial concern to some. Or it may seem like an easy, straightforward decision. If only it were. To continue where we are is at the same time familiar and easy and yet leaves me with a lot of internal tension. To look elsewhere leaves me feeling that I have betrayed our current church and am communicating rejection to the people we know there. Not to mention that I don't look forward to the idea of looking for a different church home. At what point is it appropriate to move on? At what point do the issues become significant enough to change? How long should I stick it out and work through the tensions that come with being different than those around me?

What if I took a sabbatical from church attendance? Would that mean I've stopped being a faithful Christian? What would others think? Would I risk never returning?

I wrestle with questions such as these all the time and don't seem to be making any headway toward resolving them. Most of the time I go to church on Sunday mornings, but often I feel rather hypocritical as I sit in the chair, ostensibly listening to the sermon while actually I'm trying to keep my mind from wandering. I prod my son to keep him awake, feeling guilty as I do because I recognize that I'm fighting the same thing. I want to be excited about being in God's worship community again. I want to embrace being in fellowship with God's people. I want to have renewed passion for worship (recognizing that this goes far beyond the issue of church attendance). But at the moment I mostly feel apathetic, uncertain and unmotivated. I know intellectually that the church service isn't really about me and what I get out of it anyway, but if I don't feel like I meet God there, if  I don't feel like being there draws me into renewed relationship with God, then what purpose does it serve?

It seems I have more questions than answers at present. I plod onward, carried forward by inertia. But oh, how I long for some real passion. But is passion even what I really need?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Breaking Down Barriers

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation those who fear him and do what is right.” – Peter

I love the story of Peter and Cornelius told in the tenth chapter of Acts. I love this story because it shows us that God does not respect boundaries. In fact, he often calls his people to transgress boundaries for the sake of his Good News. God's people are boundary-breakers.

Prior to this story the Good News that Jesus is Lord had remained largely within the Jewish community. In fact, the disciples seemed to understand the story exclusively within their Jewish context. Jewish was the Messiah for the Jewish people. They hadn't grasped that he was also the Messiah of the rest of humanity as well. As far as we can tell, the early Christian communities continued to observe Jewish ritual practices including the Levitical laws about food and prohibitions about interacting with Gentiles. Gentiles were the impure ones, the ones outside the community of faith. Interacting with them left one unclean.

In this situation God sends Peter to the home of the Roman Centurion (= Gentile). God has to provide a graphic demonstration in order to get Peter moving because this was not in keeping with Peter's perceptions of proper behavior nor of what was appropriate for a God-fearing man. His words on entering Cornelius' house tell us this in no uncertain terms: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” Wow, how's that for a word of welcome on entering someone's house? In a song Michael Card sings about this story he puts it in these words: “You know, I'm not supposed to be here.” Not exactly a strong endorsement of Peter's desire to reach out in love to these Gentiles.

But God shows Peter and, eventually through him, the rest of the early Christian community, that God's kingdom was about something bigger than maintaining their identities as Jews. God's kingdom is more inclusive than those first believers ever imagined. In verse 45 of chapter 10 we read that Peter's companions were astonished that God would pour out the Holy Spirit on these Gentiles. God was treating as equal those whom they had always viewed as inferior.

The Good News of God's kingdom breaks down barriers. As messengers of that kingdom, we carry on this call to cross the boundaries that we falsely erect to keep some people in and the majority of people out. Despite the example of Peter, despite the fact that most of us are beneficiaries of these early “transgressions” that allowed the Christian message to reach beyond the confines of Judaism, we unfortunately remain very good at erecting walls rather than destroying them. We write doctrinal statements defining what we believe and we make public statements clearly defining some people as “in” and other people as clearly “out”. We feel we are defending the faith in this manner. Maybe we simply are so bound by our own prejudices and stereotypes that we cannot imagine God's grace and love extending to certain groups of people. We are far more comfortable with drawing a distinct boundary between those who are in and those who are out than in allowing God freedom to show his mercy to all whom God chooses. We forget what Peter said after he encountered Cornelius: “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation those who fear him and do what is right.” Notice he doesn't say that we define what it means to fear God and do right. Those are God's prerogatives. God gets to choose whom to accept and whom not to, not us.

I want to be a boundary-breaker. But all too often I erect my own walls and define my own standards of who is in and who is out. I have my own prejudices and over the course of my life God has consistently worked to eliminate these. The most effective way has been for me to get to know people from those groups against whom I had prejudice or whom I had labeled with stereotypes. It hasn't always been easy. But it has been liberating. Along the way I have gotten to know some really amazing people. Slowly I am learning, as Peter did, that God doesn't draw boundaries the way we do. God wants me to break dividing walls, not erect them. God challenges me, like Peter, to go places where I might not feel so comfortable and to interact with people whom I would rather avoid. Because God is at work among those people and in those places also. 

At the moment one of the areas in which God is most stretching me is my attitude toward homosexuals and the LGBT community. This is a HUGE stretch for me and I haven't fully reached the place where I can enjoy open, unhindered fellowship with these individuals and communities (not because of them, but because of myself). I am beginning to recognize that just as God's grace went beyond the early Jewish Christian community in which Peter felt comfortable, so it goes beyond the community in which I feel comfortable and I am tentatively stepping across those lines that had previously divided.

(Micky De Witt wrote some good thoughts on this topic recently. I recommend her post especially for her exploration of how fear keeps us from crossing these lines.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Movies and Womens' Identity

A recent international business trip allowed me quite a bit of time for movie watching. These days the better airlines have personal entertainment centers for each seat, even in economy class. Last week I wrote about one of the movies I watched which I really enjoyed – In Time. On my homeward-bound trip the other day I didn't watch very much. The flight schedule left me quite tired and I spent as much time as I could trying to rest. While waiting on the runway in Chicago and then during the flight to Denver I did catch a film called Monte Carlo. As with In Time, I hadn't heard much about this film or read any prior reviews, nor did I have my teenage daughter's opinion to guide me. But the film looked light and fluffy, just about what my brain needed after many, many hours of travel. I also wanted to see what the director would do with a movie that featured three women in the lead roles.

Before I continue, I should make a disclaimer about my skills as a movie critic. Basically, I'm not, at least not a particularly profound one. So I'm not going to dwell a lot on the story line, the cinematography or many of the other details that a film reviewer might consider. The film follows three young women on their trip of a lifetime to Paris. One has just graduated from high school, the second is her new sister through the remarriage of her mother, and the third her best friend from work. All are from an unspecified small town in Texas. After they arrive in Paris, through a series of mishaps and fortuitous circumstances these young women find themselves traveling to Monte Carlo and living the life of the rich and famous. In the end, their false front is revealed, but along the way the three each learn something about themselves and what true happiness means to each one.

The film is enjoyable as long as one doesn't expect too much of it, which no one should have. One of the film's positive virtues is that it speaks at least somewhat of the hollow emptiness of wealth and fame. However a key aspect of the film left me quite dissatisfied. For all three of these young women finding her identity and her happiness involves, in fact I would say requires, her finding a man. The film essentially says to teenage girls (whom I imagine were the primary intended audience) that they cannot be truly complete and happy without “Mr. Right.” Even though the film is fairly generous in terms of who “Mr. Right” might be, it doesn't portray any alternative scenario for bliss. The not-so-subtle message is that until you find that right man, you as a woman will not be fully satisfied in life. One reviewer on  the Rotten Tomatoes website stated it this way:

“Harmless enough to a point...but the idea that girls should aspire to little more than acquiring a boyfriend, a home or a brand-new pair of Blahniks will be desperately depressing for any parents dragged along.”  

Unfortunately I don't know that this reviewer accurately predicts the reason for the depression most parents might feel on viewing such a film. We have been so saturated with the idea that a young woman's fulfillment lies in finding her man, that most people won't even stop to reflect on this fundamental theme. We don't even really question it. Certainly the filmmakers didn't. In fact they recognized it as a sure way to win an audience.

Some might say that I'm asking the film to be something it never intended. But if we never expect more of our movies, we'll never be given anything more. Hollywood often retreats into claims that it just gives audiences what they want and stubbornly resists calls to offer different portrayals of life. The standard pablum coming from Hollywood offers women and men primarily tired and trite cliches of manhood and womanhood. Young women in particular are rarely offered positive models of what they could become. Miss Representation has focused their energy against changing this in the media, not only in films but across the board. It doesn't even require huge steps. In this film couldn't the director and writers have offered any alternative outcome for even one of the three young women, and outcome in which she found her way in life without needing a man beside her?

I am not arguing that women and men don't need one another. In fact I believe quite the opposite. Women and men need each other very much, but not to fulfill and confirm their identities. We need each other in order to see the world in broader color and greater depth, among other reasons. But we don't need each other in order to be complete individuals. Men generally do not receive the same pressure in this regard as women (except maybe in the Church), so when I see movies such as Monte Carlo I remember the phrase falsely attributed to Gloria Steinem: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” I hope that at least I can communicate to my daughter that her identity and purpose rest in something greater than simply finding “Mr. Right.”

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Kissing Competition Goodbye

Yesterday I referred to this excellent blog reflection by Jeffrey Overstreet. I've continued to think about what he wrote today and am convicted by it, convicted of the degree to which I also allow myself to be influenced by a corrosive competitiveness. My gifts lie in other areas than Overstreet's, but that is not the issue. As he writes:

“Our world reduces everything to competition—writing, cinema,singing, cooking. Even the news is full of shouting matches. These cheapen the arts they employ. They divide us into teams. They pollute our understanding of success. They blind us to the beauty of the people in front of us, and the mysteries at work within them.”

Looking at my work over the past several years, I can easily become discouraged, even despondent, when I compare it to work others have done in that same time period. I feel that, by comparison, I've accomplished less, or my work has not been as spectacular or fruitful—any number of other comparisons could be used. I allow myself to feel like a failure because, in my mind, I don't measure up to my own or someone else's ideal of what should be. In my mind, I view life as a competition and I'm losing. And I don't like losing.

The same feeling can come over me when I think of myself as a father and husband. I compare myself to other families and, knowing my own weaknesses and those of my family, I feel like a failure because I don't have the radiant, happy “Christian” family that so many churches and Christians tell me I should have (and to help me achieve this, they will gladly sell me their books, retreats and various other helps, most of which just leave me feeling more like a failure.) I could identify so well with my friend Micky in what she wrote the other day, even if our specific circumstances are somewhat different. She writes of the pressure to conform, but I see in her description of her life and the pressures she feels also a strong underlying current of competition.

It's an ugly secret in the Christian community. We don't speak of competition. In fact we speak a lot of harmony, love and affirmation. But underneath I often feel an unspoken message of competition. We compare ourselves to one another and, if we don't think we measure up as well as the other person or to some "biblical" ideal, we feel like failures and our self-worth falls accordingly. I'm sure there are many out there for whom this is not an issue, but I suspect there are plenty of others like myself for whom this is a real issue.

When I accept this message of competition and comparison, the life within me and the joy in what I do drains from me, as Overstreet described. I divide those in my world into teams. Those I feel favorable toward are on “my team” and those who I envy are on the “other team,” when in fact there need not be any teams at all. If I want, I can choose to rejoice in the successes of others without interpreting it as a criticism or statement of failure on my part. I'm not them. And I'm not required to be them. I need to stop looking at others to determine how I'm doing. It robs me of joy. It makes me critical and cynical. I want to stop competing and start living. I will have successes and failures. I may accomplish some goals and fail to reach others. My work and my family will almost certainly not look like others. And they don't have to.

Years ago Amy Grant sang a short song whose chorus I still sing in my mind occasionally:

All I ever have to be is what you made me
Any more or less would be a step out of your plan
As you daily recreate me help me always keep in mind
That I only have to do what I can find
And all I ever have to be,
All I have to be
Is what you've made me.

I think I need to sing that more often – perhaps every morning. Overstreet says it well:

“I want to run like that—not to win medals, not to live up to the expectations of others, not to meet deadlines or dazzle audiences, but to discover what is possible....I need to leave the clamor of the arena so I can hear the call, the voice that will find me another two yards.”

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Corrosive Power of Competition

It's late and I'm tired from a long week of meetings, so today rather than writing anything myself I refer you to this very thought-provoking article by Jeffrey Overstreet. If you don't know Jeffrey's various writings, you really should. This article is a good place to begin. (Among other things, he also writes very good movie reviews.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Unique Description of Male Privilege

Travel and business meetings don't allow the time I'd like to have for writing, so today I want to draw your attention to this blog post that caught my eye. It presents a unique perspective on male privilege, using language and imagery that may be more palatable to those who benefit from this. 

As I read it I thought that this image doesn't really allow for the possibility of the "player" voluntarily giving up his benefits and credits to those who have not had the advantage he does. But while that may be a possibility, unfortunately the reality seems to be that few players will choose to do so even when the opportunity exists.

What are your thoughts on this unique description of male privilege?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

In Time

On my recent flight across the Atlantic I had the opportunity to watch a film that my daughter has been encouraging me – pressing me really – to watch since she saw it last year. She was right. I was not disappointed (even on that tiny little screen in the back of the airplane seat).

The movie In Time presents us with a future earth in which all humans stop aging at 25 years old. From that point, they all have the potential to live forever in the same physical condition they have at that age. They can die from things such as murder and physical accidents, but their bodies do not face natural aging and no one dies of old age. As we would expect, this situation comes with a catch. Each person also has a built-in clock (in their forearm). When a person turns 25, that clock begins to count down. At age 25 each person receives one more year of life. In order to prolong her or his life, a person must accrue additional time. This can be done through working, through theft or other means. There are even shops that lend time (at usurious rates, of course). If your clock runs out of time, you die instantly. It should also be noted that in this world everything is paid for with time off your individual clock. If you want a drink or something to eat, you pay with time. If you need to ride the bus, you pay with time. Rent – paid with time. So the people of earth are in a continual battle to earn enough time to meet their needs and stay alive.

We also learn that in this future world, people are divided into different time zones. Ostensibly people are free to travel between different zones, except that at each time zone border there is a fee (in time) to cross. As one moves from the lower zones into the upper economic zones, that fee grows increasingly expensive. By this means the wealthy keep the poor safely distant. In the wealthy center zone, people have so much time that they cannot possibly use it all. They are, essentially, immortal. These are the people who control the global time system. They are the ones who lend time to the poor and profit from their misery. The whole system is exploitative and injust – but it is set up so that the wealthy maintain their power and control.

That is, until our hero Will Salas arises. He decides to challenge the system and as he does so finds an unexpected ally in Sylvia Weis, the daughter of one of the world's wealthiest men. Together they undertake various activities to try to empower the poor and break the control of the wealthy. They are a classic Robin Hood pair and I won't write any spoilers that give away what they do and whether they accomplish their mission. I will say that I found the journey they take compelling and captivating. I certainly cheered for them to succeed.

This movie addresses a key issue of our time, but by framing it in terms of the effort to control time, it provides us with a different perspective. After all, the difference between time and money isn't that great, but having or not having money doesn't strike us as a matter of life and death – although in fact for many in the world it is exactly that. This movie challenges that idea that in order for a few to enjoy the full benefits of life – in this case immortality – the majority must suffer, scrounge to get by and, ultimately, die. It also challenges the significance of the life that the wealthy lead, portraying it as devoid of meaning and purpose. After all, once a person has accumulated so much wealth, what can one possibly do with it? Life becomes a mundane pursuit of banal pleasure, especially in a world where one knows that one will never die of old age. Being immortal, it turns out in this world, really isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

Nonetheless, as the film shows us, those in power will go to great lengths to preserve that power. Although underdeveloped, the film touches more than once on the idea that those in control continually manipulate both wage and price scales so that the poor remain perpetually poor. The system works inherently against them and in favor of those who possess power.

In a stark manner the film then confronts us with a reflection of our own society, doing it in a way that can motivate us to think and question and challenge the status quo. I can't imagine anyone who, watching the film, would take pity on Sylvia's father rather than rally to her battle against the system that privileges her against the majority. I saw in the film an echo of what the “Occupy” movement represents in its finest aspects. It's not just entertainment, but social critique. The film also challenges the viewer to think about the purpose of her or his life. As Sylvia asks: "Do I really want to spend my life trying not to die by mistake?" Surely life is worth more than that and society can be about more than the wealth preserving their power at the expense of the majority.

Have you seen the movie? What are your thoughts about it?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Avengers

I watched the movie The Avengers today with my two children and my father. My children, both teenagers, were dying to see it and would gladly have attended the premiere, had their mean old father allowed them. I had mixed expectations regarding the film. One of the film critics I most admire, Jeffrey Overstreet (with whom I also went to university some years ago), had given it a positive but not ecstatic review
But I knew my children wanted to go and even Overstreet did not totally pan the film, so I went expecting to enjoy an exciting action film with limited depth – and that's exactly what I got. As Overstreet describes it: “I enjoy a good superhero movie the way I enjoy a bowl of ice cream, and this is a six-scoop sundae covered in toppings.”

I won't pretend that I didn't enjoy the film. I did. The action doesn't drag. My emotions were suitably aroused and manipulated as these flawed heroes rose to defend humanity from the alien forces of evil. I laughed at the one-liners and other humorous moments. In many ways this is an enjoyable movie and I would not discourage anyone from seeing it. In fact I'd tell you to watch it on the big screen to get the best experience. Your home plasma screen tv, no matter how large, is just not going to give you the same visual experience. (We didn't watch it in 3D because 3D doesn't really do anything for me.)

I do wonder, as I reflect on the movie (which I probably shouldn't bother to do anyway), what message this type of movie sends to our culture. Sure, our superheroes now demonstrate their flaws more openly than I remember them doing when I was young. I guess that's a positive development. But as someone who has begun to wrestle more with the predominance of violence in our culture, I see some reasons for concern in our glorification of it in films such as these. Yes, the violence is (ultimately) directed against the really evil, nasty villain who is leading an army of space aliens to subjugate the earth. Who wouldn't cheer for those fighting against them? But in doing so do we become desensitized to violence in general? Do we begin to see it as the best or only option for resolving conflict? By outsourcing evil to extra-terrestrials, we can avoid the complex issues of what it means for humans to resolve their intra-human conflicts through violence, while exalting as heroes those who resort to violence in the name of a good cause. Is it such a big step from viewing aliens as evil threats to our way of life to viewing those from other cultures or backgrounds that way?

I don't have the answers to these questions. I am not an avowed pacifist and could still see myself resorting to violence in certain situations. Perhaps I would resort to it more easily than I care to admit – maybe I am a bit like Dr. Banner after all. And wouldn't I like to be able to destroy evil with such powerful blows? But would I remember to think about those innocents whom I injure or kill in the process?

Maybe it's best not to analyze a film like this too deeply. And maybe, just maybe, a person can be positively inspired by the superhero mythology. I think of my own children, who love superhero tales far beyond what I did at their age. Perhaps this superhero world can awaken in them a longing for the heroic, a desire to be avengers of justice and truth and to stand on the side of the weak and oppressed. I hope so. I'm reminded of an old song by Steve Taylor – Hero. 

Maybe this love of superheroes can remind us of our need for something beyond our ordinary human nature. Maybe, just maybe it can turn our thoughts to the one true hero, the one who can transform individuals and cultures and civilization – although in a most un-heroic way that renounces violence and embraces humble servanthood. Maybe at its best moments a film like The Avengers can point us to something beyond itself and ourselves.

Or maybe it will just leave us with a sugary headache...

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Masculine Mystique

On Wednesday I shared some reflections I had on reading Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique. Today I want to explore the corresponding idea of a masculine mystique. Friedan of course was not primarily concerned with this question, but even she hints at it in her book, such as when she writes: “It seemed to me that men weren't really the enemy – they were fellow victims, suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill.” (For those who believe feminism to be fundamentally anti-men, note well her statement here.)

I have not had the time and resources to thoroughly investigate and document this masculine mystique, but I believe it exists as surely as the feminine mystique. The masculine mystique asserts that for a man to be a real man, to belong to the “dude club,” he must demonstrate certain character and behavioral traits. Among these are that he must be strong both physically and emotionally. He must be independent. He glorifies strength and power and the exercise of these in violence – of course only that which is justified by the situation. He enjoys dominating and controlling his environment, including of course being in charge of the women around him. No real man would allow a woman to tell him what to do, though he might lend a moment of his time to listen to her if he must. A manly man should love cars, guns, sports and competition in general. He recognizes that life is a battle and his job is to come out on top.

A card-carrying member of the dude's club could not possibly enjoy literature, romance, the performing arts or expressions of beauty. He can admire a “beautiful” woman or a “beautiful” car, but you won't see him getting emotional over beautiful scenery or a beautiful painting. In fact, the only truly acceptable emotion for a manly man to express openly is anger, because anger demonstrates his desire for power and control. He may tolerate certain “non-manly” things in order to whoo the girl or woman he loves, but he can't possibly admit to liking it or enjoying it. He would lose his club card for such a thing. As I understand it – and I don't know Spanish – the Spanish language has a word for this manliness which we have borrowed into English: macho. A real man is a macho man.

This image of manliness has lost some of its currency in the culture, although our media continues to promote these stereotypes both in programming and advertising. More significantly, the Church continues to uphold the masculine mystique. The Church has added to it certain expectations of being a good, caring, devoted husband, but without losing those core traits of the masculine mystique (which in fact often leaves a man with internal tension as he tries to fulfill both expectations.) Lately certain prominent male Church leaders have made statements pushing for an even stronger masculinization of the church, railing against what they view as the effeminization of Christianity and of men in the Church. Men like Mark Driscoll, John Piper and John Eldredge have written and spoken a clear message upholding traditional, macho-driven models as being the ideal of “biblical” manhood.

The time has come to cast off this masculine mystique. There is room within the Kingdom of God for men of all types. God doesn't welcome only men who meet a certain image of “maleness.” He doesn't check for your dude club card at the entrance. Yes, there's room in the kingdom for men who are very traditionally male. And there's room for men who express characteristics and behavior that have traditionally (and still by many in the Church) been considered “feminine.” I think the designation “masculine” and “feminine” need to lose their meaning in society and in the church. At least they need to lose the stigma we currently attach to them. Men and women are different biologically and they may tend to express certain differences in behavior according to their biology, but much of what we label as masculine and feminine – gender differences – are really culturally and socially determined and therefore can be changed.

Not only does God's kingdom have room for men and women of different characters, but I think that we men need to cast off the masculine mystique because it hinders us from recognizing the qualities of godliness that have too often been labeled as feminine. We need to let go of our desire and need for power and control, for competition and superiority. I could make another entire post out of this topic alone, because I think we have falsely skewed our understanding of faith, godliness and the kingdom of God because of the influence of the masculine mystique.

We do so much damage to individuals and to the body of Christ by insisting that being “godly” means following the feminine mystique if you are a woman or the masculine mystique if you are a man. Godliness isn't about gender. It's about justice, mercy, humility, redemption, transformation and a host of other things that transcend gender.

I have a dream that the Church can become an inclusive, embracing place – a place where men and women are free to develop the character that God has given them without being constrained by culturally-driven definitions of manhood and womanhood. We're not there yet and sometimes I wonder if this dream will ever be realized. But I hold on to the sparks and the small signs of hope and transformation.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Thoughts on President Obama and the Vote in North Carolina

Two events from the past couple days have created quite a stir in cyberspace. The first came from the vote by the people of North Carolina to establish a constitutional amendment which effectively seeks to ban same-sex marriage. The second event is President Barack Obama's statement of support for same-sex marriage.

Not so long ago I would have rejoiced at the first and roundly denounced the second. When my own state – Arizona – put a similar measure before the voters in 2008 I voted in favor of the restriction (at least to the best of my memory. As I wrote earlier this year, I would now vote differently. I would reaffirm what I wrote in February and refer the reader again not only to my post but to the links I reference from Elizabeth Esther

Yesterday Rachel Evans posted on this topic and received a huge response ranging across the spectrum. As always with Evans, she argues her point tactfully and clearly, without seeking to bash those who disagree with her. I found Evans' quotation of one college senior particularly to the point:

“When evangelicals turn their anti-gay sentiments into a political campaign, all it does is confirm to my gay friends that they will never be welcome in the church.”

As Evans says regarding the support of her former home church for a similar measure in Tennessee, the signs the church put on the front lawn agitating to ban same-sex marriage communicated a clear and simple message to the community: “EVERYONE BUT GAYS WELCOME.”

As I wrote in February, I don't think it is the place of the secular state to define who should be allowed to marry whom and enjoy the legal benefits of doing so. I find it quite interesting that the same conservatives who so adamantly advocate for government to get out of areas where it has a very legitimate interest in restraining human greed, abuse of power and self-interest such as in business, advocate equally strongly (if not more so) for the intrusion of government into this most personal of relationships.

More importantly, as Rachel Evans strongly emphasizes, by pushing for laws that ban same-sex marriage, are conservative evangelical Christians erecting barriers that keep people from Jesus, rather than opening the doors to them? Are they, in their efforts to defend what they view as a vital truth, keeping people from encountering the love of their Creator God? I understand, I think, why conservatives take the position they do. As Evans writes in her book, “for fundamentalists, Christianity sits perpetually on the precipice of doom, one scientific discovery or cultural shift or difficult theological question away from extinction.” To concede this battle, in the conservative mind, is to take one more step on a slippery slope that will result in the complete collapse of our civilization and the Christian faith. But is our faith or our civilization as tenuous as that? 

It seems to me at this point in my life that Christian faith is far more about moving forward, progressing toward a greater realization of the Kingdom of God, not about trying to defend against the encroachment of anything that seems to threaten our perception of the way things should be (which more often than not corresponds to a particular cultural image of what is ideal rather than to the radically transformative Kingdom of God.) Christian faith is not primarily about holding on to some golden age in the past but about extending the wildly inclusive, radical grace and love of God to all creation. For this reason I find myself increasingly less conservative in my thinking. The best does not lie behind us – it lies ahead of us. We have not yet attained to the ideal society. We may not attain it in this world, but certainly the ideal doesn't lie behind us and our goal is not simply to restore or cling to some golden era that has already passed.

So today I respond to these two recent events quite differently than I would have not so long ago. I grieve over the vote in North Carolina. And I embrace the statement of President Obama. I know that by acknowledging this I will receive untold amounts of negative feedback from people I hold dear. But I believe our God has room in his house for a lot bigger group than the conservative evangelical agenda allows.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Feminine Mystique

Yesterday I completed a book I have been slowly working my way through for several weeks: Betty Friedan's revolutionary book The Feminine Mystique. Some have questioned why a man such as myself would read such a book. What could it possibly offer men? (Still others would question what it could possibly offer women.) But I found the book very enlightening and very challenging. I would assert that this book has something to say to both men and women now just as much as it did when it was first published fifty years ago.

I will not undertake a complete review, summary or critique of the book in this post or in future posts. There is simply too much good content for me to capture all of it. Instead I will say again: read the book! However, I do want to offer a few comments and insights based on my reading.

The feminine mystique was a name Friedan coined for a powerful influence that she identified in the lives of women of the 50's and 60's in the United States. She saw women whose mothers had enjoyed the fruits of emancipation and growing equality reject the very things their mothers had fought for and earned. She saw growing numbers of women who saw their entire identity in being wives and mothers. Along with that she identified that a large percentage of these women suffered from “the problem with no name.” That problem had to do with their lack of identity which stemmed, she felt, from the fact that they had embraced the idea of the feminine mystique.

“The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity. It says that the great mistake of Western culture, through most of its history, has been the undervaluation of this femininity. It says this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the origin of life that man-made science may never be able. But however special and different, it is in no way inferior to the nature of man; it may even in certain respects be superior. The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women's troubles, in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.

In order for a woman to be a true woman, the mystique argues, she must renounce anything that doesn't accord with her nature as a nurturer. She must certainly not seek to develop her identity outside of the home through education or professional excellence. A woman is only truly feminine and will only be truly satisfied as a wife and mother. The effort to live otherwise, according to the mystique, has resulted in untold problems for women and society.

In her book Friedan examines the origins and influences that promoted this mystique and considered the impact that it was having on society at the time and the potential impact for the future should the trend continue. She looked at evidence showing that women who subscribed to this mystique were not in fact fulfilled, whole women, but instead empty shells without any real identity or purpose in life. She called for a change in the way society viewed women and their roles, in how women were educated and prepared for their lives and ultimately in how women viewed themselves. As it turned out, Friedan ended up, along with others, launching a movement to support and promote a renewed emancipation of women in society – a movement that continues to this day because so much of what would constitute full equality still eludes women.

All too many people look at feminism today and question whether it is still needed. They say that women have achieved equality. They have the right to vote. What more do they want? Dianna Anderson addresses precisely this question in her blog today. Take time to read what she says.

I would add as well one thought that kept recurring to me as I read Friedan's book. Although she wrote fifty years ago, the conditions she describes still persist in many circles to this day. In fact, I think we may be in another wave similar to what she describes. She speaks of the first women's emancipation movement that won the right to vote and other basic rights early in the last century. The feminine mystique grew out of a response to that, a response that said women had already obtained their rights and nothing more needed to be done. In fact, too much had been done and women needed to recognize and accept that their happiness lay in the home. After Friedan launched the women's movement we saw another advance in women's equality, but now there appears to be another backlash. I see and hear too many people saying that women should be content with their lot and that they ask for too much with their continued demands for equality.

I am still more troubled by what I see as a growing movement within conservative Christian circles to revive the feminine mystique as the image of biblical womanhood. This new (but really old) mystique says that a godly woman will find her place as wife and mother and should not expect or look for fulfillment outside of those roles. I do not belittle or demean these roles. They are important and need to be given proper respect – as Friedan herself agreed. But women should not be told that these are the only roles or the highest roles that they can fulfill. God calls and gifts women just as much as he does men and the Church does wrong when it tells women that they should not seek to express their creative potential in any meaningful way other than in the home. Women have potential above and beyond that involved in being wives and mothers.

For this reason I agree with Dianna and many others that feminism still has an important place in our society. In fact, one of the places we most need a feminist movement is within the Church. I want to see women liberated to fulfill their creative potential wherever and however they are able, whether that includes beings wives and mothers or not. Women have made much progress, but there is still much room for improvement. Let's not give up the fight now. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

No Mothers Day

As we prepare to celebrate Mother's Day in the United States next Sunday, this video really caught my attention:

Maternal health remains a serious global concern. According the the World Health Organization's Trends in Maternal Mortality Report:

  • Every 90 seconds a woman dies from a pregnancy related death, that's 1,000 women a day
  • 90 percent of these deaths are preventable
  • 99 percent of maternal deaths that took place in 2008 (most recent data from 2010 study) occurred in sub-Saharan Africa (57 percent) and South Asia (30 percent)
  • 50 percent of all maternal deaths take place during the first 48 hours after delivery.
  • Seven million women a year suffer critical complications. For every woman that dies, another 20 experience debilitating and life threatening harm.

But women's health is not only a problem in developing countries far away. It remains an issue here in the United States, where we boast of the quality of our health care. Our country ranks 50th in the world in terms of maternal health -- lowest among industrialized countries. Women in the United States face a higher rate of maternal death than in almost all European countries, Canada and several countries in the Middle East and Asia. Surely we can do better. Yet, rather than working to improve this situation, we have (male) politicians working to limit and restrict women's access to health care. This should not be. While most of the world has shown improvement in areas of maternal health, the United States has worsened. For more detail, I recommend reading Soraya Chemaly's blog post on this issue, which made me aware of the campaign and video above.

As we celebrate Mother's Day, let's keep in mind the deadly hazards women face in becoming mothers even now in 2012. Keep these dangers in mind as well as you consider who to support in this election year. We can do better in protecting our women from needless death, but some of our politicians seem to think that our women don't really have the need or right to the care that could not only improve but potentially save their lives. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Lord's Prayer - Part 6

Today we reach the end of our series looking at the Lord's Prayer through the insight of N.T. Wright in his book The Lord and His Prayer.

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

An initial comment on this phrase is in order. Many translations, including the NIV ©2011 that I most often use, do not include this phrase in the main text, relegating it to a footnote because it is not found in the most reliable early manuscripts of Matthew's gospel. Wright acknowledges this but affirms the place of this phrase within the prayer, arguing “it is actually inconceivable, within the Jewish praying styles of his day, that Jesus would have intended the prayer to stop simply with 'deliver us from evil'. Something like this must have been intended from the beginning. In any case, it chimes in exactly with the message of the prayer as a whole: God's kingdom, God's power, and God's glory are what it's all about.

With that in mind we'll put aside any discussion of whether this phrase belongs in the prayer or not and consider what it tells us as pray-ers. Wright spends most of this chapter examining the role and significance of Caesar in the time when Jesus walked on the earth. For those of us who were born and raised in a modern democratic state, we relate with difficulty to life under a autocratic monarch. In fact the idea may be repugnant to us. But such was the state of things in ancient Palestine and such is still the condition in many parts of the world, whether the title Caesar or king still used by the one in control.

In light of this, Wright reminds us that Jesus' actions as well as his prayer teach us to turn our eyes to the true source of power, authority and glory. He sets up a stark contrast to the man on the throne in Rome, because in Jesus himself the kingdom of God has come in power and glory. The very king of heaven walks on the earth among his people. And he demonstrates his power and authority in ways quite different from what most Jewish people expected or desired. He did not come wielding physical power to overthrow the existing kingdoms of the earth. He didn't exalt himself. In fact he sought to put attention off himself onto the God he himself served. He did not behave as one would expect a king to behave, and for some of those who were inclined to follow him at that time this created too much internal dissonance for them to take that step of discipleship. Still today many struggle with accepting a Jesus who demonstrates his power through weakness, humility and ultimately surrender. We are still not comfortable with this real Jesus and often recast him in an image more palatable to our conceptions of power, authority and glory. As we pray this prayer and reach this closing phrase, we should keep in mind that Jesus is indeed king and that to him do belong power and glory. We should also keep in mind that he expresses this in ways that run in stark contrast to the ways of the world.

As we pray these words we should also be challenged to work as representatives, ambassadors of this king. We are here not only to allow this king to transform our own internal lives. Jesus came to restore the created order and to inaugurate the kingdom-rule of Jesus. He confronts any who set themselves up as an alternative source of true authority over and against him. He declares that he will cast kings from their thrones and lift up the humble. He will send the rich away empty while filling the hungry. (See Luke 2:46-55). And he invites us to participate in this process.

“It is not enough, though it is the essential starting-point, that we submit in our own lives to God's alternative kingdom-vision; we must pray and work for the vision to come in reality, with the rulers of this world being confronted with the claims of their rightful king. We cannot, then, pray this prayer and acquiesce in the power and glory of Caesar's kingdom.

Ultimately then, the Lord's Prayer is not just a pray for the comfort and renewal of our own souls. It reminds us that we are part of something much, much larger and more significant than ourselves. In Jesus God's kingdom has entered our world and is in the process of transforming it into the kingdom of heaven. We his people are not called to just sit quietly in our churches or homes, working to live lives of personal purity and holiness. We are called to join Jesus in establishing his kingdom. Our prayers should be joined by our actions in bringing God's desired restoration and renewal of his created order. This is a high calling indeed and one that should leave us both overwhelmed and enthusiastic. We cannot do it on our own or in our own strength. That's why we must regularly pray this prayer, bringing our focus back to the one through whom the world has been and is being transformed.  But we can be enthusiastic – literally filled with God – because he has invited us to join him in this fantastic work. I wonder whether much of the current apathy both within and outside of the church toward the Gospel message comes because we have so reduced it to a message of personal salvation that it fails to ignite the passion of many. It simply offers too little to compel others to join in the cause. A proper understanding and practice of this prayer may be a good place to start changing that perception and focus. I close with Wright's words, who expresses it quite well:

“If the church isn't prepared to subvert the kingdoms of the world with the kingdom of God, the only honest thing would be to give up praying this prayer altogether.”

How has Wright's exegesis of the Lord's Prayer impacted your perception and practice of it and of your faith?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

In Which My Blood Boils

My wife called my attention to another excellent article recently. While I don't agree with everything this author writes, much of what he said resonated very strongly with this unguy. (Chris, should you ever read this post, you're welcome to join the Unguy Club.)

Like the author, I too am not a member of the Dude's Club. I'm pretty sure I never have been. And while there have been times I wished I could be, I have reached a point of contentment in not being in. In fact I no longer mind being excluded and wouldn't want to join even if I could.

“I'm okay with that, really. Members of the Dude's Club are hard to talk to. When I hang out with them, I feel like I'm constantly being weighed, measured, and found wanting. If I don't drop enough sports references, or if my voice cracks, of if I use too many art terms, or if I express an awe of beauty, or if I talk about how I love to cook, or if I'm not physically aggressive enough, or if I wear the wrong colors, or if I talk poetry... I feel as if I'm relegated to a lesser status. Not a real man. Not a man's man anyway.”

Among the guys I know locally, the favorite activities seem to be hard-core bicycling and hunting. Although I enjoy bicycling, I'm definitely not hard-core about it (I don't have the gear and can't afford it even if I wanted to) and I do not enjoy hunting in the least. Nor am I at all interested in guns. So that effectively limits my involvement and puts me outside the Dude's Club at my church.

More significantly than this question of inclusion or exclusion from the Dude's Club, I like how this author examines the use of the term “effeminate.” Although I disagree with him on the complementarian/egalitarian question, I think he's on target with questioning the way that some Christian leaders (and others) use the word “effeminate” as a label to discount and marginalize men who do not fit their image of manliness. These men are gender shaming all those who don't subscribe to their definition of what a man (or woman) should be. And that's wrong.

“Thus my conclusion is, these 'Esau Christians' are guilty of using gender shaming as a way to insult those they disagree with on minor issues.” [I would argue that not all these issues are minor.] Call someone effeminate and you can marginalize them. Nitpick about their clothing and you can explain them away as part of the problem. Associate that music style that you dislike so much with womenfolk, and you can get people to reject it. It's emotional manipulation. Faggot, pussy. Girly-man. It's manipulative and it's wrong. Because God, even if he turns out to be complementarian, embraces a wider and larger view of masculinity than Driscoll and Wilson and Rosebrough do. There is room in the church for all kinds of men.

Like this author, I am not trying to say that men cannot be “manly” in the traditional cultural understanding of this term. If a guy likes guns, or cars, or sports, then great. But if a guy likes art and poetry, beautiful fabrics and pastel colors, that's okay too. We err when we establish some type of behaviour as normal for either gender and then ridicule, mock and marginalize those who don't hold to that. We do this with women as well, pushing them into stereotyped images of what it means to be a godly women that usually have far more to do with our cultural conceptions than they do with anything God has in mind. That was my point in this post. Gender is defined culturally, not divinely.

This use of effiminate as a pejorative label also bothers me deeply because it implies (or states even) that things associated with woman are somehow inferior. It continues the practice of marginalizing activities, behaviours and character-traits that have come to be defined as feminine. The division of these character-traits, behaviours and such into categories of masculine and feminine is culturally and socially driven in the first place and inaccurate in the second. These divisions and labels more often than not define that which is “masculine” as superior and preferable and that which is “feminine” as inferior and to be avoided, particularly by men. Based on these perceptions the worst thing a man could be is like a woman, as if a woman is somehow inferior and exhibits undesirable qualities by virtue of being a woman.

The Body of Christ called the Church should be a place where each individual can embrace and live out her or his identity as a woman or man of God without regard to her or his biological sexual identity. Belittling men because they don't fulfill one's concept of what a “real man” is like has no place in the Church. None. 

“My God is big enough that he describes himself in both Father imagery and Mother imagery. He is bigger than gender, bigger than gender roles, bigger than all the silly trappings. And if in my God there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female – then there certainly isn't any demarcation between the properly manly men in the Dude's club and those of us who aren't macho enough to make the cut.”

And if an unguy like me gets labeled as effeminate, I will accept that as a badge of honor, for it identifies me with our sisters who have been marginalized and demeaned for far too long.

Friday, May 4, 2012

What Makes a Home?

What is the difference between a house and a home? A house describes simply a dwelling; a place where people live. Home speaks of more than that. It includes the idea of a dwelling place, but incorporates emotional and intangible elements of identity and belonging.

When we returned to the United States last summer we had to make some decisions very quickly, including finding a place to live. We were able to locate and rent an apartment in a location convenient to our daughter's high school, which at that point was one of the most important criteria. But the apartment felt quite small for a family of four. Although each child had her or his own room, the overall space available for family life was tiny. My wife didn't want to invite guests because of the poor conditions for hospitality, including a miniscule kitchen. The apartment felt dark and our spirits suffered. The apartment served as a house, but didn't become a home.

In March we had the opportunity to move into a rental home. The move was a step of faith, because the higher rent and higher utilities stretch our budget very thin. But when we viewed the house, my wife was sold the minute we walked in the front door. The open living room with the sloped, wood-paneled ceiling and the large kitchen (probably the largest of any we've ever had) captured her immediately. The house included a room separate from the main house, which would serve us well as a home office. No longer would I have to conduct my work from a corner of our crowded bedroom. My wife didn't have to work hard to persuade me to pursue renting the property.

The house includes a nice, enclosed front yard. It's an Arizona yard, which means we have very little vegetation. Grass just doesn't go with our desert environment. But we have several large native trees like the one in this picture providing lovely shade (and, unfortunately, currently dropping lots of pollen which covers the yard with a yellow layer.) The shade keeps the yard somewhat cooler than one would expect in our desert climate and the trees attract a host of birds who sing each morning. Let's not forget the lizards who come out to sun themselves on the patio in the heat of the day.

This house has become our home, which is what we need as we continue to work through the process of re-adjusting to life in our home country. We had hoped to purchase a house and make that our home, but for the present that dream remains out of reach. At first this disappointed us greatly, but now we are at peace with the home that God has provided. It is nice to once again have a place to call home; a place of sanctuary and retreat.

What makes your house a home? What attributes do you most appreciate in it?