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Friday, September 27, 2013

Well, That's That

It's a heavy heart kind of day.

I withdrew.

I withdrew from graduate school. That 22-year dream.

If I may quote True Grit, "Aaahh, that di'n't pan out."

I can't do the distance learning program. I can't do school alone. I wanted the degree, yes. I wanted the possibility of the doors it might open for me to teach one day at high school or college or institute level. But even more than the Master's degree, I wanted the education. The full-bodied, robust education. And I can't get that with distance learning.

It was too isolated. Too isolating. Really, it worked like a very expensive recommended reading list. For a little over $500 per credit hour, someone will tell you what you ought to read. That someone will tell you when you ought to read it by. And that someone will give you a few questions to try to answer from your independent reading. No discussion first, neither in any type of grouping nor individually with the list maker. Post your responses on a forum where the leader or classmates CAN, but do not have to read them. Expect no replies or comments.

I had no idea whether I was building a firm foundation or not. I had no idea whether I was getting the material or not. I was just pushing forward in the few moments of the day that I had to work on it, trying to squeeze some usable content from a massive black wall of pages and text, and feeling the panic of the deadlines for posting those possibly-never-even-read answers to the questions always bearing down on me.

And that's not me. That's not how I learn. So I realized that I'm just miserable in this, and that it is terribly expensive, and there are costs upon us from every direction already. It would be detrimental to keep on.

I've always said, to myself, to my young adult friends trying to find their way in this world: If it is a calling, God will open the doors for you. But if it is just an interest, he won't.

I might need to apologize to those young friends now for how succinctly and confidently I usually made that statement. Sometimes, God opens doors and then closes them again. Sometimes, the signs seem so confusing.

I never felt so affirmed in anything as when I visited the campus and sat in on three classes and met professors and students and administrators last fall. But that was on site. That was in class. That was with bodies, and eye contact, and voices, and hand shakes, and dry-erase markers active on white boards with circles and arrows and really badly drawn maps. Not paper and letters and cold computer screens and unreturned emails and unacknowledged forum posts.

Today was the cutoff for withdrawing and having any tuition returned. I'll get 20% back. It will buy each girl one modest Christmas gift. It seems appropriate to pass it to them that way. I feel a deep, heart-need to spend that with great wisdom, so they each get something they'll cherish, because the cost to me, right now, is more than financial.

It's another letting go. Another dream relinquished.

I'm becoming nothing but an open palm.

Tell me there's good in it. Help me to see.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Narcissus, The Cure, My Friend Steven, and London, all in one package

I've been a fan of The Cure for longer than I'd like to admit, and it all goes back to being exposed to them by a friend I've had even longer than my fandom. Since his birthday is just a little more than 24 hours away, and he's on my mind (and also, so far away), I thought I would make some comments about the lyrics to one of The Cure's songs--a song which comes up in my life from time to time, a song which I still listen to, blaring, in my VW from a cassette tape recorded in my own college days. The song is called "Just Like Heaven," and at first listen, the up-tempo, danceable beat may tempt you to think of it as a happy song. It's anything but, however.

To further elaborate on this whole set of memories--the long-held friendship, the birthday, the significance of the song--I'm going to add another layer.

If you know me and have read much here, then you also know that one of the defining events of my life was a trip to London, England, while I was a college student. As it happened, on that trip, I spent some hours in the Tate Museum. While there, I planted myself in front of this surrealist Salvador Dali painting, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, even taking time to try to sketch it out myself. 

And while studying it, a man came up beside me and lingered, likewise studying the piece.  When I lifted my eyes to see who it was standing there, I came face-to-face with Robert Smith, lead singer and front man for The Cure. Our eyes met. I recognized him. He nodded at me, realizing he had been recognized, said simply, "Hello." I was thankful for the cue, frozen a bit as I was. I replied unblinking, "Hello." And he was on his way, trailed about 15 feet behind by a tittering gaggle of pleated-mini-skirt-wearing schoolgirls.

It's possibly my favorite brush with celebrity.

Anyway, back to the song. It's a rather dark song, which I did not understand at the time I first came to enjoy its happy beat. But it's not insignificant that the painting was themed after Narcissus, and this song was produced by the man who like me, found that painting so intriguing as to pause and reflect upon it.

Narcissus just couldn't get enough of himself. In fact, his whole focus was on his own person. He spent all his time gazing at his reflection in the water--total self absorption. Eventually, the gods responded to Narcissus and made him completely useless for anything but eye candy by turning him into an inanimate life form--a flower. If image is all there is to you, then so be it, Narc old friend. Dali saw the hardness of the heart that can think only of itself. He depicted Narcissus first hardening like stone before the god-given transformation to a lesser life form was, perhaps mercifully, perhaps judgmentally, complete. If one looks at oneself, and only oneself, for too long, you can possibly expect the same kind of hardening to occur.

And that's where the song comes in. It's a tragic piece, really. I read into it depression more than narcissism, but both or either could be the case. Read the lyrics and see what you think:

Just Like Heaven by The Cure

"Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick
The one that makes me scream," she said,
"The one that makes me laugh," she said.
Threw her arms around my neck.
"Show me how you do it? And I'll promise you,
I'll promise that I'll run away with you, I'll run away with you."

Spinning on that dizzy edge,
Kissed her face and kissed her head,
Dreamed of all the different ways, I had to make her glow.
"Why are you so far away?" she said.
"Why won't you ever know that I'm in love with you?
That I'm in love with you?"

You, soft and only, you lost and lonely
You, strange as angels
Dancing in the deepest oceans
Twisting in the water,
You're just like a dream.
You're just like a dream.

Daylight licked me into shape.
I must have been asleep for days.
And moving lips to breathe her name
I opened up my eyes,
And found myself alone, alone, alone above a raging sea,
Stole the only girl I loved, drowned her deep inside of me.
You soft and only
You lost and lonely
You just like heaven.

The song opens with a woman obviously very interested in the man. She is asking him to share himself with her, and expressing back to him how great her delight is in him. Open up to me, show me the parts of you that I adore, and I will give you all myself, leaving behind everything else. It sounds like a great love story.

But his response isn't outward to her. He doesn't show her what she asks for. He is turned inward, like Narcissus. He speaks of spinning on a dizzy edge. Is this the edge of new love, which twists our minds with its thrill? Or is it the dizzy edge, the razor blade, of the mental condition of depression? I tend to think it is the latter, because of what comes next. Depression robs us of full contact with others outside ourselves. We balance a thin, dizzying edge, trying to walk it well, hiding the imbalance that causes us to teeter always back inward toward ourselves, thinking only of our wants, our hurts, our insecurities, our fears of failures being exposed. Even in the presence of the one who so desires just to enjoy him, he doesn't respond to her. He responds to himself, and sinks into a self-centered daydream about how he might or might not meet her request.

She notices. She knows he has turned inward. Why are you so far away? when he is right there with her, but he won't engage. He won't connect. He is inside himself instead. Even her declaration of love for him won't snap it out of him. Depression is like this. The reality of others' love doesn't go in, it doesn't compute. It traps an individual in a self-absorbed state, much to the dismay of the loving ones trying to reach in and break through.

He then enters into an ethereal meditation about her, showing how, while he sees her partly, it's not a real view. It's a vision, inside his mind, strange and out of reach. He can see that something has broken her, left her lost, lonely, twisting this way and that, about to be swept away. But he doesn't reach out to her, even then. He has teetered over the dizzy edge into his own internalized place, and she remains on the outside, out of reach.

How much time passes before he comes to his senses? We don't know, but somehow the light does find him.  He awakes, and now, perhaps he would be healed, ready for the relationship of joy and presence that she wanted with him. But she's gone. His apathy, whether caused by depression or total self-absorption, has destroyed her. She could wait no longer, or perhaps she really was consumed within his self-centeredness. She is gone. And he is left with just a distant view of the raging chaos that was his story, and the dream of her, out of reach.

I don't link this song to my friend Steven because of the narcissim or apathy it depicts, but because he is the one who gave me this musical group, with their thought-provoking lyrics and imagery, and their willingness to explore artistically some of the harder life issues that plague humankind. The song is heartbreaking. It is a warning, a prophet's cry. Sleepers, Awake! it says. It's easier said than done, but if the daylight is causing your hard heart to stir, don't shake it off and return to your darkness. Turn toward it, before the reality of the ones who love you become only distant images in darkened trances.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Prejudices and Assumptions, Mea Culpa

I spent part of yesterday afternoon at the home of an acquaintance. A widower. A man probably close to twice my age.

I've known him for a few years. He's always been kind. He's known for generosity. Though there were a few times in our history of occasional overlaps when he made statements, seeming to be "knowing and perceiving" into my life, through the implied passing statements of yet more acquaintances--and those statements made me uncomfortable. They made me feel just a little bit unfairly judged. I set a boundary, then, between myself and him. I had to protect my heart, and so I decided he was "one of those." One I could not let myself get close to because of the danger of judgment. I assumed I knew all about what he thought, how he viewed the world, the culture, life in it, based on a few out of context statements.

I still kept contact. A card or note here or there. Months apart. Always polite. Never too very personal. "Hope you are well. Have a nice [holiday, birthday, whatever]." Guarded.

Because I thought I knew him.

A few contacts, a few incomplete statements in the mix, and I thought I had full knowledge.

But yesterday, he showed me so much more. He had called to ask me for something directly. Something it was not too difficult for me to provide for him, and in the spirit of detached service, I chose to act right away and provide what he had asked for. (Even if I felt fearful and untrusting of him, I still would not want to cause him pain. And my own soul knows in too raw communion the hurt of a recent such transaction between myself and another--when I ventured to ask for one small thing I needed, which would cost nothing more than breath or keystrokes, and had my request slammed back at me with only nothingness; I would not choose to pass on such a sting to another if I could help it with such little effort as this.)

And so I arrived at his home to fulfill the request and he asked me in. We sat at his table by the window for a while, making small talk. And then he surprised me with a story from his life, right now. I never would have guessed what he was going to tell me. I never would have guessed how he saw the world, and friendships in it, and human need, and broken hearts, and a desire to help, and, maybe most of all, a desire to be loved, wanted, sought out.

He was just like me. Just. Like. Me.

And then he listened. He let me tell a short, brief, encapsulated version of one of my own stories, which told him I understood.

We held hands. We cried. We prayed together.

I see a little of his heart now. He understood a lot of mine. I was wrong in my assumptions. It was fear that made me leap. I am so afraid of judgment, in the community that is supposed to be the most loving. I am so afraid of the prejudices developed from the snippets of my life story that have been shared, without the sharers getting the whole picture, asking for the details--so afraid of prejudices I made my own. I built up such a wall of fear that I assumed he was just like my images of others. But I was wrong.

He is just like me.

I'll be going back.

"Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment." -- John 7:24

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Appearance of Evil

A conversation I had this morning with my brother Kevin tied in nicely with the content I’m studying about biblical hermeneutics. That’s the fancy, high-falutin’ word for interpretation. We’ve been reading about the cautions for how we interpret scripture, and pointing out some of the pitfalls of not considering the context and culture a passage was written in.

Kevin had asked me to explain the meaning of an old hymn lyric. He’s going to be performing a part of that hymn in church on Sunday, and he said (wisely, I believe) that before he sings something, he wants to know what he’s saying and make sure it’s consistent with truth. I told him he was like the Bereans, turning the pages of the scriptures to be sure that the good NEWS Paul was sharing with them was in accordance with what they already knew to be true. It was. So was the hymn lyric. But sometimes, our modern interpretations of what we think we understand create new doctrines which are not in accord with the truth. And that led us to this discussion.

Language usage changes and sometimes things that were crystal clear get obscured. That language evolution is one of the reasons why adhering rigidly to a single Bible translation, such as the KJV translation only, can sometimes be a drawback to the church. We don't understand words the same way as people did back then. One of the most messed-up examples for us today is a misapplication of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. In the KJV it is translated, "Abstain from all appearance of evil."

With our contemporary understanding and application of the word “appearance,” that sounds like a doctrine of controlling outward appearances, doesn't it? It sounds like one should somehow be able to figure out what everyone else thinks "looks like" evil, and then abstain from those things.

But that is an anti-Christian doctrine, if so. Jesus never complained about people who looked "evil" on the outside. He did, however, vehemently criticize the ones who looked GOOD on the outside when inside they were selfish, not submissive to God, greedy, oppressive, self-justifying, concerned about their own status over God’s glory or the good of those in need. Outward appearances of righteousness mean nothing to God. They even offend him greatly if they are accompanied by an unconverted or self-protective heart.

The scripture wasn't wrong. The KJV wasn't wrong. It wasn’t a bad translation—at the time. But back then, people understood "appearance" to mean "manifestation." When evil literally shows up in your presence, you abstain from it. THAT is consistent with Christianity.

You who are indwelt with the Holy Spirit are therefore holy. Use that indwelling for discernment not to disassociate and therefore appear, in the external sense, good. But use that indwelling to associate, and  rely on that indwelling to discern when to reject real evil.

Other, more modern translations use different wording for that verse, which communicates to our modern ears what it was really about. The ESV, which is very close to the KJV, says: Abstain from every form of evil. (Not just something that looks like it might be evil, but the real form of it. We have always been meant to live in the real, material, three-dimensional world, and not just the world of the mind and appearance.) And the NIV says: Reject every kind of evil.

How we hear those words today is in accord with how the original readers of the KJV would have heard the word “appearance” then.

But whole boatloads of Christians today hear that translation and apply their modern understanding to it, without comparing it back to the whole of scripture. As a result, they put on the outward appearance thing and think they are right in doing so. They let their minds be conformed to the patterns of this world in order to react to those patterns with an external response that they believe gives them an appearance of holiness. And they count on that appearance of holiness to translate to real credit for obedience in God’s eyes.

In doing so, it becomes accepted, even justified, to reject opportunities to BE the church in the radical associative ways that Jesus was, because we can think we are obeying an archaic translation, which we did not hear in the terms of the language at the time the translation was made. It's a tragic paralyzing of the church, and it’s a false gospel. We never save ourselves by trying to be approved of by the world.

If we turn the pages like the Bereans did, then we find that in the original Greek writings, there are different words used for the “outward appearance” of righteousness that Jesus condemned, and the “literal manifestation” that Paul told believers to recognize and abstain from. The KJV recognized this by attaching the word “outward” in the former case, and omitting “outward” in the latter.

Christianity is about the heart. It’s also, even before that, about the God who left glory and crossed into his creation, because he cared too much to disassociate from it. He got dirty doing so. He is the literal manifestation, the appearance, of all that is truly holy and righteous, and he associated with sinners, the dirty ones, intimately.

It didn’t look good on the outside to his critics. It looked quite evil, actually. He intentionally invited himself to the home of those known for stealing money from the people. He drank with those known for being drunk. He let women touch his body and scolded pious and self-justifying men for complaining about it and judging him. He was not unrighteous in taking the side of a woman caught “in the act” of adultery. He touched the unclean. He appeared to break Sabbath rules. He wrecked the conventional and fully accepted trade tables in the Temple. He chose on purpose to send away all his followers so that he could meet alone with a woman who needed him, at a time of day when he knew there would be no spectators, no “chaperones,” and then used that encounter to powerfully draw a community to himself through her, formerly a throw-away harlot. A dirty woman. Even the woman thought he was out of his mind to wait for and associate with her. Her own judgment of herself caused her, at first, to judge him from the outside—at first.

By filthy-looking association, he set captives free.

Those who would justify themselves by their pure outward appearances smelled of carrion to him. He called them “whitewashed tombs.” Pretty on the outside, and completely rotten on the inside. And we know from the account of his arrival at Lazarus’ tomb that such a stench made him recoil in deep emotion.

It’s always about the heart. That’s where God’s concern is. That’s what he’s interested in. That’s where he is.

And even if we say, “But I want to be sure I am above reproach,” we are deceiving ourselves. I can never, in my own outward actions, ever be above reproach. The truth is I am not, in the sense of worldly measurement, above reproach. I lost that claim at conception. The only one who is above reproach is the one who is honestly confessing his or her sins, the reason for reproach, to the one who promises to forgive and wipe clean the record. Then he is faithful and just to forgive us of all unrighteousness, and the accuser has no claim any longer, no matter what an outward appearance may look like to those who don’t know that purity exists internally, and informs and directs external behavior. It isn’t the other way around. Starting from the outside in is a false doctrine which elevates the self to god-status.

But even that isn’t hopeless. That’s the starting point for all of us. And that’s who Jesus came to "dirty himself" to save. He didn’t, like the ones condemned by the story of the Good Samaritan, cross over to the other side of the road to keep himself externally and ceremonially clean. He entered into this filth, this refuse, this carrion, to open our eyes to our false doctrine of self-justification. He causes the scales to fall off, so that in humility and utter reliance on him, in the full knowledge of his literal presence with us, we can stop worrying about what others think of our outward appearance and follow him. Follow him to associate where he calls us to do so, in full assurance that our favor with him can never be taken from us—no matter how “dirty” the mission may appear to be.

Neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation—not EVEN the mistaken interpretations of those who seek to think evil of you—can separate you from the permanent, established, forever love of God in Christ Jesus.

And that’s good news, which prompts a response.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

An Example of My Classwork for Grad School

So I'm finally pursuing my Master of Theological Studies, with an emphasis on Christianity and the Contemporary Culture and Educational Foundations for Teens and Young Adults. I'm now in my second class. The first was Calling, Vocation, and Work, which I took on-site in St. Louis this summer, and this current one is Covenant Theology I, which I am taking through the distance learning program.

So far in CTI, we are talking about epistemology: how we know. It's been very philosophical so far, trying to grasp the ideas of objectivity and subjectivity, and whether one negates the other. We have moved into "critical realism," which embraces our subjectivity as not only inevitable but necessary and good.

Here's one example of the type of question and answer homework we are producing now. This is my response, which is posted on a class forum. I must say that I have the most respectful classmates I could ever have imagined. The dialogue that follows a posting, even if it is in disagreement or points out an outright error, has been filled with graceful, kind, supportive words.

What does N.T. Wright mean that critical realism is "essentially a relational epistemology" that offers a narrative account of reality?

My response:

The question of how we know that what we know is really true has been asked for millennia. Long abandoned by most philosophers is the idea that there can be any completely objective knowledge about anything, since we who are seeking such knowledge are subjects, bringing our own perceptions and limitations to the object. While some, for a time, might have held that certain things could be tested empirically and therefore known objectively, they had to admit that a vast realm of knowledge then had to be labeled as unknowable because of the inability to test and measure it. The result of this was relativism, which denies that anything can be verifiably known, since all is subjective and nothing, therefore, is certain.

But that leaves us with no ground to stand on where knowledge is concerned. We cannot throw out all knowledge as if it is nonsense. Phenomenalism tried again to approach the collection of knowledge through data perceived by the senses, but modified its expression of that sense-date-perception with a sort of humility, being careful not to make too substantial a claim about the knowledge being gained, and leaving the door open for debate. But the result is that knowledge becomes not about the world itself; it can simply be about what I perceive the world to be. It’s really all about me, then.

Mr. Wright proposes a way of approaching knowledge which he calls critical realism. He says we first must acknowledge “the reality of the thing known as something other than the knower.” It exists, and it is separate from me. Additionally, he acknowledges that the only way I can know something about the thing is to be in relationship to it. Therefore, we accept that there is an inevitable subjectivity to the knowledge I can have, but that subjectivity does not invalidate the reality of the object. While the object is “independent of the knower,” the knowledge about the object is “never itself independent of the knower.” In this sense, it is a relational epistemology. It is through my relationship with the object, and my critique of that object, that I will gain knowledge about the object.

This relational epistemology is narrative in nature because we humans, as image bearers of a God who reveals himself in the stories of scripture, has set us into a reality of a moving history. All that we have experienced is woven together into a fabric of stories which form our own worldviews—the framework through which we enter into relationships with the objects of our knowledge. And those objects—whether they are inanimate, animate, or fellow humans—each carry with them their own stories. Stories shape our current worldviews. They may confirm them by offering overlapping stories that illustrate or elaborate the same knowledge we have come to hold. Or they may challenge or contradict our own stories. In either case, we relate to the new stories and respond and adapt our knowledge accordingly, as we are presented with additional relationship that allows those stories to be told.

I particularly appreciated this sentence from page 40 regarding stories as metaphors to change understanding: “Metaphor consists in bringing two sets of ideas close together, close enough for a spark to jump, but not too close, so that the spark, in jumping, illuminates for a moment the whole area around, changing perceptions as it does so.” My world overlaps in relationship with many others, so all our stories are constantly serving to shape by close proximity and response, the knowledge each other is developing as we seek to make sense of the reality we are placed in and are a part of. We are not detached observers of our world, but we are designed by God to be actively involved in (in relationship to) other people and the physical creation itself, and in terms of our epistemology, we are always building on the knowledge we have already acquired.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Inside It Sings a Map of the Sea!

Remember when the mail used to be fun?

Remember when it wasn't just bills and bad news and Vote for Me and going out of business sales?

Today, JOY arrived on my doorstep through the U.S.P.S. It literally came to the door, because this box just barely wouldn't fit in the mailbox, and it looks a little like it might rain.

There's a favorite poem of mine called Seashell by Federico Garcia Lorca. Miriam once memorized it at age 4 to perform onstage. It goes like this:

They brought me a seashell.
Inside it sings a map of the sea.
My heart fills up with water,
with smallish fish of shade and silver.
They've brought me a seashell!

(Translation from the Spanish might differ slightly; This is the version we learned.)

I love the sea. I love the shore. I love the sand and the waves and the shells and feeling like a pretty girl walking with her hair windblown. I love the love I associate with the beach. And I love people who are there right now, even though I am not. I told them again this year, as I think I do every single year, that September is my favorite time of year to be at the beach.

I didn't make it to the beach this summer. Time and money were against it and they would not be negotiated with this time around. So we surrendered that to reality. But my dear friend Emily and her family went, and Emily being Emily, she didn't forget. Didn't forget that I love it too. Didn't forget that I couldn't be there, or at any beach, this year. Emily sent me a remembrance.

Come with me. Open it with me.

This is the inside of the box, the initial "Welcome!" This tells you Emily's heart. The first thing she wants the recipient to see. 

The lid is covered in artistically presented snips of stationery, covered in her favorite song lyrics. Emily's heart, shared, in her own handwriting, brightening up the brown cardboard.

There's a beautiful box within the box.

 And seashells! And more!

I don't quite feel worthy of opening this pretty box. What treasure waits inside?

Did I mention that Emily makes everything beautiful? Even something as lovely as this gets further adorned by the presence of a strip of crocheted material.

A Hawaiian anklet, I think. Each flower is made of shells. "I always wear one on the beach," her note says.

A bottle of water. It says "ocean water" on it.

Yep. It passed the pinky taste test--salty, gritty. That's the Atlantic in that bottle. You can even smell it.

Another package in the bottom, under the shells.

Emily is the Queen of the Mixed CDs to make you happy. This is Sunny Days, volume 3. And it has real beach sand adhering to it. 

The liner notes are not a list of tracks, but a list of reasons for the tracks. Why Emily thought each one should be included.

Reason #8. I can hardly wait to listen and find out what this song is.
A bit of wisdom and encouragement, pasted to the bottom of the box, under the shells and sand.

What a lovely treat from a lovely friend.

My heart fills up!
Surely, it sings!


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cats and Dogs: On Apathy and Zeal

Animal lovers, don't hate because of the generalization I am about to apply. I can honestly say I've known real, live cats that had true affection for their humans, but we can all also honestly say that in general, cats are distant, aloof, loving on their own terms and when it suits them. So don't hate. I'm using the cat stereotype in this blog entry.

I've been mulling and mulling over some of the events of my life, things I've done or failed to do, times I've loved or failed to love, and the content of this past Sunday's sermon and how it relates to relationships and expectations.

And I think I finally realized today why some of the hurtfulness hurts so badly. I still don't know what to do about it, but at least it's making a little bit more sense.

More than we are rich or poor, this race or that, male or female, we people are either cats or dogs. And I'm a dog. Now. But I wasn't always. In my most self-centered time of life, I was a cat, and I could claim pedigree for it too.

I will tell you the story, and you can know that I tell it through tears of regret, remorse, and repentance. If life had an "undo" button, I would use it. But that would rob my dear friends of their crowns received for the forgiveness they gave me, and so, it remains not undone. It's in our history; it's part of our story.

First, some background.
The sermon on Sunday was based on Romans 12: 11-12. If you want to hear the whole sermon, you can listen to it here: Spiritual Passion. There's a lot in this, and definitely one for Pastor Dave's Greatest Hits collection, though I've said that a lot lately. I think he'll need at least a double EP.

First, the scripture reference: Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

So he's talking about this zeal, fervency, pathos, passion behind the emotion. It's tying in well with my Covenant Theology class--getting the balance right between head knowledge and emotion, because both are necessary in our relationship with God. And of course, all of us are guilty of a certain level of apathy toward God. Even if we're doing fairly well at some points, his outpouring of affection and desire and support of us is so great, we can't even imagine how great our response ought to be. So we have to be commanded not to be slothful, but to "LET love be genuine." Don't hold it back. And if the heart is hard so that there's not a passion in there, evaluate. Why is that? Pastor Dave says apathy is sin. The word fervent has to do with a raging fire, a boiling over. We're supposed to boil over for the right things: To love the Lord your God with ALL your heart and ALL your mind and ALL your strength, and then to love your neighbor as yourself. We get the "as yourself" part most of the time. Dave's always mentioning that we're navel gazers. The trajectory of our emotions are pointed inward, to me. It's true.

How do we want to be loved? And how do we want to love?

In the movie The Big Kahuna, Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito are salesmen who have worked and traveled together for many years. They've done life together. But in a scene, on the road, at dinner together, Danny asks Kevin, "Do you love me?"

Kevin is taken aback a bit and he stammers over his reply. "If you're asking whether I want to marry you and have kids, I'd have to say no." Then he dwells on it for a bit, and gives this lukewarm reply to the guy he's spent years of his life with. "You have good hygiene. You're a snappy dresser. What's not to love?"

Danny is clearly deflated. It's not how he wants to be loved. He wants to know someone is FOR him with more than just a detached, dispassionate awareness, or simply the absence of offensiveness. He quotes Jesus' "Love has no one greater than this: that he lay down his life for his friends."

Lay down my life. That's a big one. But I can honestly say that right now, there are people I love enough to put my physical existence on the line for them. There are people whom I would take a bullet for, like Eponine did for Marius, because I need to know they live more than I think I need to live. But what about the parts of life that aren't really life itself, and yet get so elevated? Will I lay down my schedule for my friends? Will I lay down my financial security? Will I lay down my perceived reputation? Will I lay down my pride? Why do those things hurt so much more to give up than life-breath itself?

I think pride really is at the heart of apathy. Don't you? Here's the cat and dog thing.
Dogs just aren't proud. It isn't in them. They are not navel gazers, not even when they are wounded. A dog sees you coming, even if you only just stepped outside to take out the trash, and he is like, "OH, HEY! It's YOU again! Hey, I missed you! Man, it is SO GREAT that you came back! Let's do something together! I want to get in your face! I can't get close enough to you! I just LOVE you!" His arrow is completely turned outward.
But the cat, not so much. You bounce up to a cat you haven't seen in twelve hours, and she may rub up against you if SHE feels like it. Or she may turn and smack you down. Cats love you on their own terms, when they feel like it, when they have nothing better to do, and they love you just as much as they determine that you deserve. And the more you gush over them, the more likely they are to withdraw and go find a bed to brood under, free at last from your zealous affections.

When I first arrived at college, I was gifted outright with some of the best friends a person could ever hope to have. People I could at once be completely at ease with, comfortable, genuine, transparent. People who loved me like the dog does. And they let me love them back. Over the course of the first few years, we grew really close, and then lost a few. Lauren chose to join the Army and I lost him for a couple of decades. But thanks to God, he turned up living in the same town I now live in, and I got to see him married almost a year ago in a wedding-to-never-forget in nearby Brevard, to a woman who seems so well-suited to him that I kind of have a craving to know her better, and hope opportunity for that will happen since we are geographically so close. Britt had to leave us for a larger school, and when she did, a hole in my heart for her absence opened and never has quite filled. Mitzi was in there, yep, but she also had close friends from her hometown at school with her, and not too far into our college years she found the man she would marry there and so she migrated between his social group and ours. But Dave, Matt, and I were definitely bonded in a type of zealous affection and encouragement of one another solidly for several years.

Until I turned cat-like. I can't tell you why my heart hardened toward others. I can tell you that it most certainly did, and when I look back at it, I hate it about myself. Sure, school was busy. I had a lot of work to keep up on. There's that. It's still no excuse for failing to love genuinely. No excuse for being slothful in zeal. I just turned my arrow inward and became the Queen of the Navel Gazers.

It was most evident one time when we were all preparing to leave for break. I don't remember if it was a short break like Christmas or a long one, such as summer. I fear it was a long break. I lived in an apartment off campus and the guys lived in the same complex just a few apartments down the hill. Literally, I could look from my parking space to see whether their cars were parked outside their door or not. It was that easy to be in touch. But I was thinking only of myself. I finished my classwork, packed my car, and pulled out for the 3 1/2 hour drive to my parents' home. I didn't look for my friends Dave and Matt. I didn't say goodbye. I was a cat, doing my own thing, and I felt justified in my self-direction. I had things to do.

About a half hour after I arrived at my parents' house, the phone rang. I remember taking the call in the kitchen. My older brother Jimmy was in the room, sprawled in a hard wooden chair at the kitchen table. He had met me with a bear hug and helped me bring in my bags a few minutes earlier and he was waiting to get caught up with me about school. It was Dave on the phone. He couldn't believe I had actually answered, that I was already almost four hours away from school, and I had left without saying goodbye. Remember, Dave and Matt had been the genuinely affectionate ones. The encouraging ones. The ones always delighted to see me and always pulling for me. And I had turned cold. I could hear the emotion in Dave's voice, "You left without saying goodbye? We're right here, and you left without even saying goodbye?"

And even then (I cringe when I think back to this), I responded like a cat. It didn't cut through my hard heart. I defended myself. It's MY life. I'm not responsible for how YOU feel. Gosh! Get over it already. It's just a break. When I hung up the phone, I saw my older brother, in his wisdom and compassion and judgment, looking at me with those knowing eyes. He was hurt for my friend Dave. And he was, I believe, ashamed of me. (Had he been Mr. Knightley, he might have said, "Badly done, Rebecca.")

What he did say was, "You know, I wish, I really wish, I had just one friend who cared enough about me to notice when I came and when I went. You have two, and you don't even know what that's worth."

I now know that he was right and I was so very wrong. But then, even then, when my hero big brother was trying to open my eyes, I couldn't see it. I could only see me.

The next year at school, Dave and Matt and I did drift apart more. They got other friends. I made MY plans. Dogs make friends easily. Cats think they're OK to be alone. And then we went different ways. Graduation, changing schools, jobs.

Five years later, I found myself living alone in NC. Dave was in Atlanta. Matt in Maine. I had a great job that I loved, with magnificent co-workers who shared a common purpose with me. But I had no social circle outside of work. I was desperately lonely. And it was only then that the scales on my cat-eyes started to come off, and the hardness of that heart started to change and soften to realize what I had done.

The funny thing is, though, they had already forgiven me. Even in the distance between us, they had forgiven. In the deepest point of my loneliness, Matt called me. He initiated. He was going to be on a road trip, and he wanted to come through Asheville and bring his girlfriend Holli for me to meet. Would I let them come see me, stay a night? Of course! And all of a sudden, I was a dog again. Salivating and squirming and joyfully looking forward to their arrival. I remember sitting with them on the floor of my apartment, listening to music and looking at magazines and talking, talking, talking. I loved Holli instantly and could see what a perfect match she was for Matt. I could be thrilled at how happy he was. And they were there, with me, and I didn't want to be alone, but I wanted to bask in how fantastic these people really were. Yes, it was filling an empty loneliness in me, but that arrow wasn't pointed toward me then. It was pointed outward at them, and in that, I was being satisfied.

Not too long after that, Dave came too, to bring his fiancee Donna to meet me. (Another one of those meetings I can be so thankful for--seeing how each great friend was provided exactly the partner he needed for this life.) He had forgiven me and when he faced the biggest relational event of his life, he was clear that he wanted me to be involved.

We are fully reconciled, and I have so much reason to be thankful for how it did work out. So when I hear these kinds of messages, I can look back on that story in my life and see the hurtfulness and destructiveness that apathy causes. I know it personally too. I think the times I have been most deeply hurt by others is when I have received what I gave that time: I bounce up to someone in enthusiastic optimism and support and love and get smacked down, like a puppy approaching a cat who does not have time for that.

Pastor Dave says it isn't hopeless. I know that to be true. God broke me out of myself that time, and he will keep doing it for me. It's a process. It's never really over. I'll go back. I'll turn inward. But he'll keep drawing me out again, and I hope, I get a little better each time. I also have hope for others who are where I was then. I want the reconciliation. I want the mutual fervency. I have hope, however long it takes. I have hope.

And I'm much happier as a dog than as a cat. I wouldn't have known it at the time, all self-protected as I was. I thought that was the way to be. I thought I was somehow higher, more evolved.

I was wrong. I was just prideful and hard and hurtful. But I was given grace, by the bucketsful. And I am so thankful.

There is grace.

Saturday, September 7, 2013


I've talked so much in the past about the siblinghood of believers in the church, and been shot down by so many who say it doesn't fit the conventions they were taught growing up in suburbia and rural America, that a part of me has kind of died in that area--given it up to Satan to maintain the blinders that keep the adelphoi from seeing themselves as adelphoi.

"If it is of the Lord," said an older woman friend whom I really admire for her steadfast trust in God even when she sees evil winning the day, "it will come to pass. He never fails. His arm is not short and his vision is not dim."

So, I set down the battle. I gave up the fight. I lost a friendship over it too... one that means as much to me as my own blood siblings. The way was just about too hard for him. The voices too loud. There was not enough support and encouragement toward what was right but radically so. The cost to follow is great, and sometimes it is just too great.

But some of the adults a little younger than me are not laying down the issue, and for that I am thankful. Carry on, dear ones. Carry on. I will support you in prayer, and my heart is with you. But this life may have won in the middle of the fourth round. I'm off my feet.

God bless the visionaries. God bless those whose scales fall off their eyes. God bless the church.

Thanks to one of those beloved for sharing this today. It gives me hope for the generation my children are growing up in. If only we would BE the church to one another, we could offer such depth of encouragement and steadfastness--we really could image God to the world in all areas. But when we choose to segment, divide, isolate, refuse fully HALF the interaction and the sharing of grace in the fullness of the Body that is available to us, yes, we cripple ourselves. Every time the ring of new, man-made restrictions tightens a notch, we lose something from one that was intended for more, and we can never know just how costly that was.

Why Men & Women in the Church Can't be "Just Friends"

Read. Consider. Is there something more to this idea of safe relationships in the Body than you've been willing to open yourself up to before? If the same Spirit is in you that is in me, is there possibly something greater that has been quenched for too long? "Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another in brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor." Become who you already are.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Why I'm Weary of All the Modesty Posts and Debates

A little over a week ago, I sat behind a man in church. I don't know him well yet, but we usually sit behind him and his wife. He is very active in the worship ministry of the church. He's friendly and welcoming. I have nothing but confidence in the sincerity of his devotion to Christ and no reason at all to question it.

He's a very laid-back, casual guy. On this particular Sunday, he was wearing a clean, untucked Hawaiian shirt and jeans. He was clean and tidy in every respect.

After a few songs, for which we were standing, I began to pay attention to the pattern on his shirt, and a repeating figure began to emerge from the busy pattern. It was a hula girl. In the context of a Hawaiian shirt, the hula girl certainly fit, so no surprise there. Upon further examination, the image emerged to me a little more. She was wearing the typical grass skirt, and a pair of halved coconuts. Yep. Hula girl all the way. It was obviously a cartoon drawing and only for the truly demented would the image have been at all erotic or a stumbling block in any way. And I have to admit that I found myself honestly delighted to see my neighbor wearing that shirt in the assembly of God's people, because of what it said about his heart.

As it happened (does anything ever "just happen"?), the sermon was on Romans 12: 3-8:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.  Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

"I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think..." And then it goes on to point out that each of us has a purpose, a reason for existence, and it has to do with doing something for the service of others. Our pastor elaborated on the passage saying that there's a converse too that also applies: Don't think too little of yourself either. Self-deprecation has no place in the Body of believers. You've been saved by grace. You have a God-determined value and a role to fill.

The big idea here is not to think too much of yourself, and not to think too little of yourself, but just to think about yourself LESS.

So I see the man in front of me, and I imagine him getting up that morning and looking forward to being there, worshiping, singing, greeting people. So he grabbed a clean shirt and put it on and left the house, not spending any excess time on the toxic image-management attitude, not studying himself in the mirror and grinning with that "Wait'll they get a load of me" smirk and swagger. Not wondering whom he would displease either. Nope. He just wasn't thinking about himself at all. And that is so refreshing.

It reminds me in a way of what is now coming across as overkill on these modesty debates. I am raising four girls in a culture that sees their physical form as the one thing about them it can't get enough of. I'm so far greatly blessed that the ones who are old enough to be under the consuming eye of that culture are very inclined to make wise and tasteful choices about the clothing they wear and the way they present themselves. Yes, they are girls. Yes, they want to be pretty, and I certainly want to encourage that. Girls and women are made by God to be beautiful and he receives glory from the feminine form which is his design. I don't want them in any way to reduce or downplay their femininity as if it is something evil.

But I also really don't want to build into them an obsession about their image in other people's eyes either. No one is responsible for another's perception or another's sin. And overly emphasizing their body image can do no good at all but possibly great harm--teaching them to be self-obsessed; teaching them co-dependency (another toxin we women so often fall prey to, even in thinking we're being holy and righteous and diligent).

I want them to think about themselves less, and get on to the business of living the life that God has for them which is walking with him in all things, and using their gifts for the good of their brothers and sisters and the greater whole of humanity, moving his creation forward with their skills and contributions.

One look in the mirror. One quick check. Not a long study. Not a deep analysis of the visual image. A glance, and then, get busy, thinking less of ourselves at either extreme.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

About Tigers, and a Lion

It's called the most exciting 25 seconds in college football, and I can personally attest, as a many-times physical witness to the event, that it's been that way at fall football games at my alma mater for at least 25 years.

Death Valley stadium at Clemson University rarely has empty seats to fill. Thousands of fans even gather outside the stadium, tailgating and enjoying the Tigers' roaring from beyond the stadium walls, just content to be near the live action, watching on mobile screens and still listening to radio.

Prior to kickoff, the entire team boards two chartered buses from the west end of the stadium. The buses circle the exterior of the structure to deliver the Tigers, fully pumped and ready for action, to the top of The Hill--the famous seatless slope at the end zone which is filled with the lowliest of fans: all the freshmen. But hey, we were just happy to be there, and somehow the thrill of being close to the team and close to the famous Howard's Rock, made squatting on the crowded grass and trying not to slide into the fans in front of us for three straight hours worthwhile.

As the buses circle the stadium, the roar outside from the unadmitted fans, begins to rise. It moves around the exterior of the field like an audio version of the Wave, and we know: They're almost here!

The mass of massive players emerges, enters through the gate, and stands in two lines at the top of The Hill. A cannon fires, hundreds or maybe thousands of balloons escape heavenward, the band bursts into the Tiger Rag, but there's no holding these Tigers. Each player, having committed beforehand to give at least 110%, rubs Howard's Rock and charges down The Hill and onto the field.

The roaring is ear-shattering. Once, for my Acoustics class, we actually measured and reported the decibels. I don't remember the number, but it was far beyond the level needed to sustain permanent hearing loss. And it doesn't stop for about three hours.

Something like 22 years ago, I crossed a stage at Clemson University with several thousand others like me. I accepted a piece of paper in a leather folder which said I had accomplished the requirements and was conferred a Bachelor of Arts degree. There was a smattering of applause from a crowd comprising approximately 15% the turnout for a home football game--with most of those people there to see only one of about 4500 graduates commemorate a major life accomplishment. It's nothing less than PUNY compared to a football crowd.

Now, I am a fan of Clemson football. I hope one day to let my girls experience the festivity and celebration. It's something I want to share with them. It's something I want them to know. I'm a little on the proud side today about the 38-35 win the Tigers pulled out at home last night, despite being ranked behind the Georgia Dawgs at the start of the season. We humans are made to enjoy and to celebrate, and football, especially here in the South, gives lots of opportunity for many to do that, together, in one place, and make memories that last a lifetime.

But at the end of the day, something in my heart catches a bit when I see the fanfare and the hype and the rush of the team which produces a rush of such adrenalin in the crowd too. And competitive, sporty, festive, alumnus that I am, even I cringe a little.

I truly love Clemson. I love the place. I love the memories. I love the friends it gave me. I love the way of thinking--processing a problem and addressing it--that came from my education there. I love the freedom I had to become who I really was, not just who I had felt expected to be. And I love Clemson because it was there that I met one whom I love even more than all of that. One who loves me into eternity.

I was in my junior year at Clemson when I had the priceless opportunity to take an art history class over spring break in London, England. It would be about a two-week intensive. We'd leave a few days before break began and come back a few days after it ended, jet-lagged and exhausted and enthralled and exhilarated and absolutely culture-shocked all at the same time. Much of our time was spent in lectures at significant buildings and museums. But there was free time too, and for one of those evenings, one of the other students and I decided we would go find tickets to a major stage play. For some providential reason, the line for Les Mis was shorter than the line for Phantom of the Opera. We chose Les Mis.

We did manage to get seats, and I think they were at the remarkably low price (by today's standards) of just about $30 US each. But they were in the "nosebleeds," as we'd call them if we had similar seats back at Death Valley at home. They were perfect. The height and sharp angle gave a perfectly clear view of all the stage action, the construction of the barricades, the comings and goings of the characters. It was like a God's-eye view, I now think. And something happened to me during that stage play.

I had grown up in a culture that would most certainly call itself Christian. And I had been taught all the basics. But it's like the coin that goes into the slot of a soda machine and lodges partway down. It didn't engage. It didn't produce a result. I didn't believe what I knew. I didn't understand it either. And I still didn't understand it at the end of the play, but something changed. When the Bishop handed the best silver in the house to the thief Valjean and set him free with his full, lavish favor, the right of siblinghood, and his crimes forgiven, I, for the first time, understood the meaning and application of the word "grace." Prior to that moment, it had just been so much "church-talk" to me. An overused bit of jargon. So overused, it meant nothing at all to me except that it was a very frequently recurring female middle name among my peers.

And a seed was planted. That seed stayed dormant for almost exactly another year. But it was there.

One year later, I was making plans to stay on in Clemson after I graduated that May. I had met a young man, another student, whom I thought I would marry. We had plans. But he was a year behind me in school and so we began to think of how that was going to work. I didn't feel particularly called to take my degree back home, where there were no jobs, nor to any other particular place, and as romantic love does, it created the singular desire to just stay there. I thought I knew why. But God knew something more. I found a job locally and began working part-time for that last semester of school, with the intention from the company that upon graduation, I would be promoted to full-time local office manager. It seemed like a good fit for hanging around Clemson for an extra year before getting married.

A few weeks after I started work there, though, another young woman, about my age, also named Rebekah (though the spelling was different) and also red-headed was hired to work with me in the large, open office. Within a day, I knew I liked her. She was open and refreshing and kind. She smiled easily and seemed so much more comfortable in her own skin than most of us 20-something young women were, not out to prove anything, not insecure, comfortable, hospitable, welcoming. Within two weeks, I can pretty much say that I loved her. And I wanted what she had. Something I couldn't put my finger on.

It was that seed, waking up.

Rebekah had a deeply genuine grace-based relationship with Jesus. She was the most authentic Christian I had at that time been aware of meeting. She wasn't out to defend God. She wasn't angry at the people who didn't know him. She wasn't trying to conform public behavior to some standard of conduct that would make her comfortable. Rebekah was walking with God. She was content and at ease and so very attractive. And I saw Jesus in her. I saw love and compassion and freedom--oh, so much freedom!

Shortly after that, through attending an RUF Bible study with Rebekah, which she invited me to when she saw I was interested, and starting to go to church (at first, because I thought that was what "good people" did, but later out of a true, deep desire), I came to know that same Jesus she had. And everything changed.

He became such a priority that everything else, the fanfare of the celebrating crowds, even the romantic attraction to the cute boy I was waiting on--it all seemed to take a step backward from me. It faded a little. He shone. And I shone.

So when I see the fervor at Howard's Rock and The Hill, and I love the pomp and the pageantry, it all still seems a little hollow for me now. Because it won't satisfy long term. Tomorrow, it's just a memory of a lot of color and noise. Even the victory will fade.

And I know the story of the limited fanfare, under such humble conditions and make-shift pageantry, my Lord experienced when he made his grand entry into the greatest victory of all history--his entrance into the holy city of Jerusalem, where he would die to take on all the sins of the world to grant that grace, that unmerited favor, that restored fellowship and wiping out of the record of wrongs, to his beloved, forever.

There were no fancy chartered buses. Just a borrowed donkey colt. There wasn't a band nor a crowd of 100,000. A few gathered to wave him on with branches torn from trees or picked up off the ground, not giant foam fingers and felt pennants made in a distant Asian country for pennies apiece and purchased here at exorbitant profits to someone. Some of the controlling religious leaders even tried to shush the ones who had gathered: Stop that noise!

But it wouldn't be stopped, and it hasn't been stopped ever since. And the day is coming when the celebration and fanfare and decibels of praise will make even the most exciting 25 seconds in college sports completely forgotten. This time, it won't be for the Tigers.

It will be for a Lion. A Lion who appears as a slain Lamb. Where's the logic and victory in that? The power of meekness and humility and self-sacrifice and unconditional love and umerited favor is greater than anything a lifetime of weight-room training and wind sprints can ever hope to produce. That's what real power is. Power to overcome the valleys of death.

And I'm going to be there. There won't be anything hollow or passing about that--the victory that will never fade.