Archive for April, 2012

A Quick Prayer for the Church’s Children (and Their Parents)

But first, a brief story:

On Tuesday, I went with Luke’s class on a field trip to see a play.  Anna came, too, and we all sat and laughed as the silly animals onstage revolted against their silly farmer.  There was singing and dancing and plenty of comic relief.  It was great.  After the play was over and the house lights came up, Luke’s classmates, Darvon and Juan turned and looked at me, beaming.  I grinned and raised my eyebrows at them.  “Did you guys LOVE IT??”  I asked.  “Yeah!” was their enthusiastic reply.  Then, Luke and Anna started chatting with them about their favorite parts.  Much smiling and laughter ensued.

They chattered on while we waited for our bus to be called, and I leaned my head against the back of my seat while I waited.  “I hated that play,” said a voice behind me to his friend.  “Me, too!”  his buddy replied.  “It was so kiddish.”  “Yeah, I hated it, too,” said a third, “It was stupid.”  I glanced around and saw that the original speaker was an adorable blond headed boy talking to his friends.  His hair was long and swooped across his forehead like a little Abercrombie Kids model.  He and his friends wore the matching “field trip shirts” from a wealthier school in town.

“Please, God,” I silently prayed, “save my kids from that attitude.”

“Oh,” I added, “And thank you for Luke’s classmates.”

And now, a second quick story:

That same afternoon, I sat on my friends’ couch while our children played happily in the backyard.  She had told me on Sunday that she was praying for God to bring helpers to our church–our “little wisp of a church,” as I affectionately call it.  Just that day, two of her (Christian) friends called expressing interest.  One of hers approached the subject like this:  “My daughter is really starting to worry and frustrate me.  She feels so entitled all the time, and seems to honestly think the world revolves around her.  I’m not sure what to do…..So, tell me about your church.”  I laughed.  It’s no secret that our church will change your perspective on life and especially on materialism.  I understood her friend’s hope that maybe getting to know her lower-income neighbors would help her daughter reexamine the difference between wants and needs.

These two events rattled have rattled around in my heart and have finally coalesced into a silent prayer that my soul prayed all day yesterday:

God, please be with my children…our children…the children of your church here in the West.  Protect them from the self-absorption and greed that are such hallmarks of their culture.  Guard their souls from ingratitude and wastefulness–the wastefulness of their resources, their opportunities, their lives.  Show us as parents, Father, how to guide our children into your Kingdom.  Show us what it means to live in the world, but not of the world…because honestly, God, I’m not sure what that means half the time.  Show us how to spur our kids on to the radicalism to which you have called us all, without making them resentful toward it.  Show us how to challenge them without exasperating them.  But mostly, God, I pray you protect them from the evil one.  So often, I pray for their protection from the physical manifestations of evil.  Today, I pray for protection from the spiritual.  As scary as the physical can be, the spiritual dangers are so much more prevalent.  Protect them, God.  Protect us all.  Amen.

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What do you pray for your children?

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Top Three on Tuesday

I’ve been toying with the idea of retooling some parts of my blog to bring them more in line with the overall theme.  For my “Top 3 on Tuesday” posts, that basically means changing the title to incorporate something about civics.  I’m picturing something that conveys 1) the Kingdom civics theme, 2) the fact that it is a collection of pertinent articles, and 3) that it is a weekly feature.  Any ideas?

While you chew on that, I’ll share my top 3 this week:

The Sane Ones, from Experimental Theology

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.

The bulk of this article (including the above excerpt) is quoted from Thomas Merton.  Some of it resonates with my thoughts on the human capacity for evil, and it also echoes some of my concerns about our tendency to always elevate the logical and dispassionate as morally superior.

Forgo, from Millions of Miles

I am among the 1-3% wealthiest persons of the world. Not because of my income, but simply because I have a bed and access to clean water. To realize I am just like the man to whom Christ spoke in Luke 6:24 is a horrible feeling.

When did retirement become one of life’s biggest goals? When did comfort become the deciding factor in all major decisions? What happened to living like foreigners in the land in which we live (1 Peter 2:11)?

The excerpt from this article is also a quote from a third source, and this time, that source is the creator of an app called Forgo.  I loved the idea behind the app, and even if I don’t end up personally using it (mainly b/c I want to choose my own charities), I was inspired to incorporate the premise into my own life.

A Ban on “Biblical,” from Internet Monk

I made a New Year’s resolution this year: I will try my best to avoid using the adjective “Biblical” to describe what I think “the Bible teaches.” The use of this word as a prescriptive adjective to promote positions and convictions is rampant among Christians. The problem is, it usually obscures more than it enlightens, hurts rather than helps, and stops discussion dead in its tracks rather than promoting good conversation.

Chaplain Mike goes on to list the necessary caveats, but on the whole, I totally agree with his point.  It’s funny because the verses we read in our Wednesday night class last week talked about the banning of oaths.  One of the comments I read on that passage was that people used oaths to claim that God was on their side and basically to stop the conversation.  It was a power play.  It seems sometimes that we do the same thing with the word, “biblical.”  After all, if you claim that your view is “biblical,” and someone disagrees, does that mean that he or she is un-biblical?  That seems to be what’s implied!

Did you read anything interesting this week?

The Futility of Spot Cleaning (and Why Ben Franklin was Wrong)

In my mind, there is no chore worse than spot cleaning my carpets.  The carpets in this house are especially light, and thus, they inevitably get various spots on them throughout the week.  These spots drive me crazy, but in order to maintain sanity, I limit my cleaning of them to once a week when I vacuum.  In the meantime, I content myself with thinking bad thoughts about them and giving them the “stink eye” whenever I pass.  That way, once vacuuming and spot cleaning day comes, I am usually more than ready to take them out.

Each week, there are inevitably one or two spots that drive me especially crazy, perhaps because of their location or their darkness.  I tend to fixate on those big spots; whenever I pass them, I think, “Oh, I can’t wait to get that spot out!”  A funny thing happens, though, on spot cleaning day.  I come marching up to my spotty enemy, armed with Spot Shot (very aptly named) and a clean, damp washcloth.  And then, I annihilate that spot, much to my own satisfaction.  I bask in the triumph, but only for a second…because now that the offending spot is eliminated, I see a smaller spot nearby, a spot that went unnoticed while Big Daddy was alive.  Hmph!  I promptly take out spot #2.  But oh no!  Now that #2 is gone,  a cluster of five smaller spots comes into focus, a little group that would have never bothered me while the others were there.  In fact, now that I’m down at carpet level, I see all kinds of spots, and–even more alarmingly–there appear to be several swaths of light gray that I have successfully ignored until now.  Confronted with this horror, I tend to then fly into a spot-killing frenzy, zapping and scrubbing spots until I finally give up and admit to myself that I need to borrow or rent a carpet cleaning machine.  And then I realize that will probably involve phone calls (ugh) and money changing hands, and it all seems too hard, and I never do it.

I repeat this process every week.  It sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Honestly, I think part of the reason that this futile, spot-cleaning cycle comes so naturally to me is that for years, I tended to treat my sin the same way.  I would identify a particularly egregious sinful habit that was bothering me, and then I would launch a self-control campaign against it.  With focused effort and willpower, I was often moderately successful at eliminating this sin from my life–at least for awhile.  The only problem was that once that sin was removed (pushed to the back burner, really), I would notice another sin that needed attention.  And then another.  All manner of sins would come springing into view once I started focusing on my shortcomings, and after a season of sin-zapping, I would find myself exhausted and defeated.

In truth, my approach to sinfulness tended to mirror that of Benjamin Franklin.

In his famed autobiography, Franklin recalls his attempt at achieving what he termed, “Moral Perfection.”  In order to reach this lofty goal, the young man created a list of thirteen virtues to cultivate:  Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility.  He then spent a week focusing on each virtue and recording his moral successes and failures with that virtue on a chart in a journal.  His plan was to perfect one virtue a week, which meant that after thirteen weeks, he would be…well…”morally perfect.”

Of course, Franklin freely admits that he was not perfect at the end of his project, although he does claim more success than I would have had, if my own track record is any indication.  And honestly, I tend to chuckle when I read of Franklin’s little experiment, and to think, “Yeah, right.”  Either he is being tongue-in-cheek in his autobiography, or he is deluding himself to think that this is a plan that would ever work.

The Bible portrays a different reality than is suggested by Franklin’s plan, and to be honest, the biblical reality is even more maddening to me.  In contrast to the “Protestant work ethic” so evident in Franklin’s little charts, the Bible tends to view us as ultimately passive recipients of transformation, which is effected by the Holy Spirit’s work within us.  Yes, both Jesus and Paul give much instruction regarding our actions in this life, but they also both acknowledge the futility of trying to achieve these things by ourselves.  Jesus says things like:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

And Paul tells us to do such seemingly impossible things as “be transformed” and “be made new.”  Notice the passive tense there.  Clearly, Paul sees that another Force is at work to meet the standards that he sets in his letters.  That’s part of why I don’t see the Sermon on the Mount as a list of rules anymore.  While I view its fulfillment as the goal of my life, I have come to realize that only God’s Spirit, working within me, will ever meet that goal.

That’s why I honestly don’t take the “spot cleaning” approach to sin these days.  And I’m so over Ben Franklin’s charts and lists.  Maybe it sounds bad, but I really don’t have a mental list of “things I need to improve” that I keep with me at all times.  I’ve failed at that for too long, I guess.  I’ve given up.

Instead, I try to seek God with all my heart.  I figure that I’m nothing without Him, and so my only job is to make sure my wagon is firmly hitched to that Star.  Thus, when I get frustrated with myself and my daily failures, I don’t brainstorm ways to overcome them anymore.  Instead, I just say, “God, please help me!  I need your Spirit so much right now!  I’m screwing everything up!”  And then I just hope He comes through.

That passivity used to bother me.  I wanted to think of myself as a “self-made” person.  I have come to see, however, that that kind of thinking is delusional.  No one is self-made, and my own list of shortcomings is so long that I could never conquer it through willpower.  Instead, I have to surrender my efforts, my quest for moral perfection, to another Force entirely.  The funny thing is, I find that when I do turn my transformation over to God’s Spirit, I am much more effective in God’s Kingdom.  My acknowledgement of my dependence on Him makes me hunger and thirst for Him more, and I am finally able to see what David was talking about with that deer imagery.  Overall, it is a much more satisfying, peaceful existence.

At the very least, it sure beats that infuriating spot-cleaning!

On the spectrum from active to passive, how do you tend to see yourself in the process of attaining morality?

My Heart is Full and Satisfied

1.  We are having people over for dinner tomorrow.  It has been too long since we’ve had people over for dinner, and I’m really excited about it.  We are grilling out, and I’m making this apple dessert that I love.

2.  I had a list of people to talk to at church on Wednesday night.  I always had a “list of people to talk to” about various church projects while in South Carolina.  This was my first time to have that list in Tennessee.  For me, that means I’m starting to get plugged it, really plugged in to the church here.  It’s a good feeling.

3.  Also, I’m really excited about our church’s future.  There is just something in the air right now, and I can’t wait to see what happens.

4.  I only have a week of teaching left.  As much as I loved teaching, I cannot tell you how happy this makes me.

5.  I plan on spending my “teaching” time in May catching up on Project Life and working on some projects for church.  I can’t wait to get started on them.

6.  I feel incredible peace about homeschooling.  The more I think abot it, the more excited I get.

7.  My morning plans got canceled today, which allowed me to put a cleanin’ on the kitchen–and I mean, big time.  It was therapeutic.

8.  Then, Anna and I went to the zoo for a toddler class and a picnic lunch.  We had a blast, and she kept a smile on my face.

9.  The weather was beautiful today.  That has been a trend lately.  I am still not used to the beauty of Nashville in the spring.

10.  It was so beautiful that once we picked up Luke, we took him back to the zoo.  We went to see the new dinosaur exhibit, and the kids loved it.

11.  Then, we went to see the elephants, and they were eating hay and spraying themselves with water and dirt.  It was utterly fascinating.  I could have watched them all day.

12.  That night, when I asked Luke what his favorite part of the zoo was, he listed all the animals we saw instead of the Dinotrek, even though he insisted he loved the huge, robotic dinosaurs.  As he explained it, “It’s just that God made all those animals, and people made those dinosaurs.  I liked God’s stuff better.”

13.  I have an idea for my next “Citizenship 101” blog, and I”m excited to hash it out.

14.  We have been reading some really good library books recently, thanks to some online recommendations I’ve found.

15.  I thought of most of this list tonight while laying down with my adorable, four-year-old daughter, my arms wrapped around her and my face in her hair.  After a long while, I lifted my head up and gave her some kisses, which is the sign that I’m about to have to go.  SHe smiled and wrapped her two little arms tightly around my one, in order to get me to stay longer.  I obediently buried my face back in her air and stayed awhile longer.  I wish I could have stayed forever.

Kingdom Voices: Luke Timothy Johnson on the Sermon on the Mount

Last night was my first week “teaching” our women’s class at church.  We are currently inching our way through the Sermon on the Mount (coincidentally, we are doing the same thing in our Sunday morning class, which means this is my kind of church!).  Last night, we looked at the section on oaths.  It is kind of a strange section, so I came to class armed with Bonhoeffer and Willardwho both had some thought-provoking ideas about the passage.  I also looked up what Luke Timothy Johnson had to say about it in his book, The Writings of the New Testament.  While doing so, I found some cool thoughts on the “sermon” as a whole (he says that the term, “sermon,” is misleading).

Johnson views this collection of thoughts to be Jesus’ authoritative interpretation of the Torah.  He makes some really great points about the divine standard that is promoted in these chapters.  I encourage you to read these words and really ponder their depths:

The phrase ‘father in heaven’ runs throughout the sermon as the constant point of reference (5:16, 45, 48; 6: 1, 4, 6, 14-15, 18, 26, 32; 7:11, 21).  And if it is God’s effective rule that Jesus announces, then God is the only adequate measure of it:  ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (5:48).  The words of Jesus, therefore, do not present a program capable of human fulfillment, but a measure for all Christian existence.  A measure less ultimate than God would mean a kingdom less ultimate than God’s.  This is the essential framework for understanding the Messianic interpretation of Torah by Jesus” (201).

I love this idea of God’s holiness being the standard for the Sermon on the Mount.  Despite my best efforts, I tend to read the sermon as a list of rules, a “raising of the bar” on the Torah.  I read it and think, “Wow, that is a lot I have to do.  The Sermon on the Mount, however, is so much more profound than a list of rules.  It is a glimpse into what it means to be holy–what it means to be like God, quite frankly.  Johnson’s words here put me in awe of my calling as a member of God’s kingdom.

A few paragraphs later, he goes on to discuss Matthew 5:20, where Jesus says that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Regarding Jesus’ words here, Johnson asks:

But how do Jesus’ teachings exceed those of the Pharisees?  Certainly not in the multiplication of commands, for we are here presented with only a suggestive sample.  The exceeding is to be found in the radical nature of Jesus’ interpreation:  radical in the sense of getting to the root.  Jesus’ interpretations assert God himself as the only adequate and ultimate norm of the kingdom” (201).

That idea of the Sermon on the Mount simply being a “suggestive sample” is intriguing to me.  Even though I’ve always known that Jesus does not address the entirety of the Torah in this sermon, I have always tended to view it as a complete code of ethics.  I am intrigued by the idea that Jesus is just giving us a little sampling of how to interpret  what God really wants from us.  And again, I like how Johnson reasserts that God is “the only adequate and ultimate norm of the kingdom.”  I have grappled with the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount before, and Johnson’s interpretation helps confirm my suspicions that it is so much more than an updated version of “the rules.”

Finally, Johnson gives a helpful breakdown of the alterations Jesus makes to the traditional understanding of Torah:

How does the Messiah interpret Torah?  He radicalizes it in three ways.  In the case of murder and adultery (5:21-30), he demands an interior disposition corresponding to outer action.  For the prohibitions of swearing and divorce (5:31-37), he demands an absolute adherence rather than a mitigating casuistry (though cf. 19:9).  In matters of human relationships (5:38-47), he demands a response that goes beyond the letter of the commandment.  These antitheses serve to assert Jesus’ authority to interpret for the kingdom (201).

It might be my love for classification that makes me enjoy this last passage so much, but I appreciate how Johnson analyzes Jesus’ interaction with Torah here.  His analysis helped spur on my own thinking about the way that Jesus reinterprets the Law.

All in all, I really enjoyed these thoughts.  Part of why I’m putting them on the blog is that when I found them, they were highlighted and starred from when I read them years ago.  Needless to say, I had totally forgotten them.  I don’t want to let them get away again!

What do you think about Johnson’s analysis?  Do you have any “push back” to his thoughts?

Top 3 on Tuesday

Due to the unprecedented reaction of having not one, but two–TWO–responses to last week’s always-highly-anticipated “Top 3 on Tuesday,” I am keeping the tradition alive, even though I’m fresh out of blogs to share.  Instead, I’ll just link to three good articles I’ve read in the past week.

By far, the most moving one for me was, “My Father’s Son,” by Jamie the Very Worst Missionary.  I think it is one of those that either hits you or it doesn’t, but I immediately teared up at the line that inspires the title.  Again, I can’t really explain why it hit me so strongly, but it did.  It’s short and sweet and profound.

Other than that, there were not any articles that really rocked my world.  However, I did find two articles about Facebook that were interesting.  Other than their subject matter, they have little in common, but I’m going to force them together nevertheless.  In “More Connected and Never Lonelier?”, Chaplain Mike quotes a super-long article from The Atlantic about loneliness.  Though I didn’t read the whole Atlantic article, the idea of social networks ultimately making us lonelier is an interesting one.  I would love to hear other’s thoughts on that.

In a completely different vein, I read the practical article, “Facebook Etiquette for Christians”, when it was shared–of course–by a friend on Facebook.  It is incredibly unfortunate that the title is misspelled (I had to correct it on here), but other than that little snafu, I thought it had some good tips.  The biggest idea it raised in my mind, though, was how do I best use Facebook to glorify God?  I love the idea of being purposeful in all my actions, including social networking.  Thus, I wasn’t moved or convicted or inspired by any one tip in this article; rather, it spurred me on to think more carefully about my actions on Facebook in general.

Okay, now that I’ve shared my Top 3, has anyone else read anything interesting?

Confessions of a Horrible Runner

As a child, I never understood the idea of running just to run.  You ran from whoever was “It” in Hide and Seek.  You ran around the bases in your softball game.  You ran to hit the ball back in tennis.  Those things all made sense.  But running laps??  Running laps is what your coach made you do before you got to the fun stuff.  That type of running was ridiculous to me.  I remember being so frustrated, for example, when we got a new tennis coach my Senior year of high school.  He had never played, nor coached, tennis, but he was set in his opinion that we should run a mile before every practice.  Now, I had been playing tennis since I was five years old, had played in several leagues, had taken innumerable lessons, and had played for my school since the 8th grade.  No one had ever made us run more than a few laps around the courts to warm up.  That kind of running simply was not helpful for tennis.  I remember silently seething each time we had to run down to the school track, circle it twice, and run back to complete our mile.  “If I wanted to run around in circles like an idiot, ” I thought, “I would have joined the track team.”

A funny thing happened that year, however:  I actually began to see some value in doing this thing that I hated so.  Perhaps it was the conditioning of the dreaded tennis practices, or the fact that, his predilection for torture aside, I actually liked my tennis coach.  Perhaps it was the magazine article I read in either Seventeen or YM that lauded the mental and physical benefits of running.  Perhaps I just had a masochistic streak and decided to try to embrace this thing that caused me so much pain.  Regardless, I decided to tackle the teen magazine’s simple plan to become “a runner.”  I liked that the magazine’s plan talked about running in terms of time, not distance.  For instance, it would start with something like, “Run one minute, walk three minutes,” and then work up to longer periods of running.  Since we lived on our church’s campground at the time, I would either run the trails or run on the treadmill that was inexplicably housed in one of the sleeping cabins.

That’s where it all began.

In the thirteen years since then, I have been a regular “runner.”  I ran steadily through college, through the early years of marriage, and through these years motherhood.  I have even taken to recording the days that I run, which helps me maintain some consistency in my practice. Running, in short, has become an integral part of my life.  When I go a few days without running, I start to get restless and anxious, eager for my “fix.”

Here’s the thing though:  I’m still a horrible runner.

I mean it:  I’m terrible!  After thirteen years of consistent running, I am still not able to run more than two miles without stopping to walk, and I often can’t even make it that far!  Seriously, I’m freakishly bad!  Since I started running, I’ve known several people who are in far worse physical shape than I am–even some smokers!–who have started running, and are now running marathons!  Marathons, people!  And then there’s me…dinkin’ along on my little two mile course, huffing and puffing all along the way.

Truly, I have a problem.

Here’s the crazy part, though:  I still love running.  Well, I love it as much as one can love something that causes them endless pain and frustration.  I am usually eager to go for a run, and I miss it when I can’t fit it in to my day.  I have pondered the reasons behind this bizarre love, and I have come to a simple conclusion:

My body was made to run.

It’s obvious, really.   Our bodies were designed to move, to be used, to exercise.  It’s just part of being human.  Thus, even though I’m pathetically bad at running, it is still something that I was made to do.  

My unique relationship with running has made me ponder other things that I am bad-at-yet-meant-to-do.  I think sometimes we give ourselves a free pass to avoid the things that we are bad at, explaining to ourselves and others that “this” is the way we are made.  In some cases, though, I think that we are made to do more than just the things in which we excel.  There are some things, like moving our bodies, that everyone is supposed to do, even when we don’t feel like it.  For example, my husband has the biggest sweet tooth of anyone I know (well, maybe besides my mama).  Meanwhile, I love most fruits and vegetables and can’t resist any dish that has spinach in it.  Clearly, eating healthy is more difficult for him than for me.  And yet, we are both made to eat healthy foods.

It’s also the same with being a Christian.  There are some things that, I believe, every Christian is called to do, even if we are bad at them.  In my opinion, one of those things is hospitality.  Several verses in the Bible describe hospitality as a Christian trait…and yet, as an introvert, hospitality is not my strong suit.  My temptation is to excuse myself from being hospitable, since opening my home falls squarely outside of my comfort zone.  I am tempted to use the “one body, many parts” argument to say that hospitality is someone else’s job, while my job is to ramble about my spiritual thoughts on the internet.  I’m much more comfortable with that.  I honestly don’t believe, however, that “one body, many parts,” excuses us from the basic tenets of Christianity, which include such groaners as denial of self, love for (all) others, and following the radical way of Jesus.  Frankly, I’m not amazing at any of those things…but, just like I was physically made to run, I was spiritually made to follow these commands.  And the crazy thing is that when I do follow them, as bad as I naturally am at them, I come away feeling…happy.  Whole.  Free.  And just like with running, I start to get antsy when too much time passes between practicing those commands.  For example, my stingy self inexplicably starts to get jittery when too much time passes between putting money toward God’s kingdom.  My introverted self starts to sweat when two weeks pass without a visitor in my home.  My lazy self starts aching when I waste too much time on the internet.  Even though I’m naturally a hoarder, naturally private (in some ways), naturally lazy, as a Christian, I was made to practice generosity, hospitality, and self-control.  

As bad as I am at those things, they are as necessary to my spiritual health as running and proper diet are to my physical health.  Thankfully, I don’t have to be great at these commands to feel the benefit of practicing them.  As hard as they are for me, I was made to do them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go squeeze in a run before my morning gets going.

What things are you comically bad at, yet were made to do?

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