On “Virginity,” Women, and Worth

Let me tell you a story, and a couple of brief anecdotes.

A girl I went to summer camp with as a teenager was from a pretty observant Christian family — mostly Catholic but not exclusively so. She’d been raised to value virginity, and was very proud of the fact that she was a virgin despite the pressure she felt from her circle of rich, popular, athletic friends. And she used to regale us with stories of how she would lie to her parents and tell them she was going to a friend’s to study, and instead go to her boyfriend’s house and spend all day skinny dipping with him… etc. She also had strong views about the circumstances around re-pledging one’s virginity — apparently you could have intercourse exactly once and then repent, and God would accept you as a virgin again, but after that, if you had intercourse again, it “counted;” you were officially defiled at that point, and probably shouldn’t wear white at your wedding.

I have friends who are virgins by some variation of the technical definition, but who’ve fooled around with dozens of people, who’ve struggled with pornography addictions, or whose sexual fantasies dominated their thoughts. I also have friends who aren’t virgins by any of the most common understandings of the term, because they were raped or molested or sexually abused.

And speaking of how we define virginity, I read a news story a few weeks ago about Quebec barring doctors from performing “virginity checks” on girls as part of their annual physicals. It struck me, once again, how much our culture’s language of sexuality aims its force at women — a “prude” is usually a woman, but so is a “slut.” Physiologically, too, we too often attach the concept of virginity to intact hymens — body parts men don’t even possess!

Christians have an obligation to be more biblical than that, to refuse to put an unfair burden on women (who are substantially more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than men) or on men (who are much more likely to feel cultural pressure to be sexually active and to use pornography than women are) in the way we talk about God’s purposes for human sexuality.

I think it’s long past time we quit talking about the ideal for Christians’ sexuality in terms of “virginity.” What, honestly, does the word “virgin” mean if it can be applied to a person like my summer-camp friend above and a person who’s never been so much as kissed, but not to a person who has been sexually victimized? What purpose does it serve to hold up virginity as the standard, if not to confuse the “experienced,” alienate the abused, and stir up pride in the hearts of the “inexperienced”?

To those who might object that “virginity” is just shorthand for “sexual purity,” is there any real sense in which a pornography addict is sexually pure simply because he or she hasn’t had intercourse? Is there any sense in which a sexually victimized person is not sexually pure simply because sex acts have been forced on him or her? It’s ludicrous to think that God’s design for human sexuality can be summed up with a word that frankly isn’t used all that frequently in Scripture.

So once again I’m going to propose that we speak of chastity rather than virginity or even sexual purity. Virginity is a state of being, but chastity is a choice, an ongoing, daily decision to live one’s life in a way that embraces God’s design for sex and sexuality. Virginity, for most people — those who marry as well as many who don’t — is temporary. Chastity is a permanent lifestyle that continues into marriage, because it encompasses all godly expressions of sexuality. It’s just as accurate to speak of a chaste single person, a chaste husband or wife, a chaste person separated from his spouse, a chaste divorced woman, a chaste widow or widower.

Chastity is about a life, a choice, a path of dedication. Right now, as a woman who is not married, chastity is a way for me to witness to the ultimacy of Christ, over and above romantic or sexual love. My life, by God’s grace, can become a picture of the future God has for all his people. If the Lord purposes marriage for me, that path of chastity simply continues as my life becomes a picture of the church’s love for Christ.

Our bodies matter to God, it’s true. He made them, down to the minutest detail. But for those of us who have been made new in Christ, what we do with all of our lives in these bodies matters, not just a few parts. Let’s stop categorizing one another based on what we have done, or what has been done to us, with just a few of those parts, and begin to encourage each other to walk now in a way that honors God.

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That’s Not Why (Or: The Problems With A Consequentialist View of Sin)

I hate-read (well, not “hate-read” exactly, more like “irritate-read”) a couple of Christian blogs, and in the comments section of a post to do with protecting children from being exposed to things they weren’t ready for, a commenter insisted on the importance of exalting the beauty of marriage and urging children to “save themselves for their future spouse.” It got me thinking. Weird, I know.

I have a problem with people focusing “purity” talk on weird stuff like giving your virginity to your husband just like I have a problem with people saying that lying and slander and gossip are wrong because they’re hurtful. Generally speaking, I have a problem with the implication that not trusting God is wrong because it makes our lives harder when we don’t, because I have a problem with consequentialism.

Consequentialism is the notion that the consequences of an action are the best way to know if the action itself is right or wrong. In other words, if something is harmful, to ourselves or others, it must be bad, and if something is helpful, it must be good.

Consequentialism pervades our culture — “they’re consenting adults” and “I’m not hurting anybody” and “my body, my choice” all point to a conviction that acts are as morally right or wrong as their impact on others. And don’t get me wrong, it’s is useful and indeed vital for a society because it shapes our laws and determines how we punish crime, but it’s a rotten foundation for understanding sin and holiness because it puts the purpose for doing right and avoiding wrong in the wrong spot.

The why of obedience isn’t “because it’s bad for you” or “because it’s bad for other people.” Not ultimately. Don’t get me wrong, here. God’s commands are good (duh), and obedience is for our good (duh). But our ultimate good is not the same as our short-term happiness or blessing. In God’s providence, even our sin is for our good; even our suffering is for our good. Sometimes God graciously defers consequences for sin, for his own good purposes. And you know what? Some people have sex (even lots of it!) outside of marriage and don’t get an STI or a baby in the bargain, and feel no guilt or shame or remorse for their actions. Some people get drunk regularly with no long-term health effects. Some people live genuinely happy lives while making choices Christians would all recognize as sinful. And guess what else? Many Christians are “virgins,” but consumed with lustful fantasies, or addicted to erotic novels or pornography, or simply eaten up with pride over their superior purity. Many Christians have never taken so much as a sip of alcohol, but have a disordered relationship with food, or are addicted to smoking, or look down their noses with disdain at those who enjoy a glass of wine now and again. In this fallen world, actions and consequences are simply not that mechanistic.

If we spend all of our time telling those we teach to obey because they’ll be blessed if they do and avoid sin because they’ll be sorry if they don’t, what happens when the uncomfortable realities of life in a fallen world strike? What happens when the girl you dragged up on stage at your youth event to do the duct tape analogy has sex for the first time and doesn’t feel like de-stickied duct tape at all? What happens when the kid who grew up being warned about inevitable spiritual depression if he stopped going to church stops going to church and is perfectly content with his decision to have brunch instead? I’m convinced that this kind of teaching is a big reason that so many kids leave youth group and the church about the same time. Consequentialist theology leaves them vulnerable to every message about following their hearts. It has the ability to make sin seem not all that bad, actually, as long as it’s not hurting anyone!

So you shouldn’t dress modestly to keep men from lusting after you or assaulting you. You shouldn’t avoid pornography because it’s addictive. You shouldn’t shun drunkenness because cirrhosis is deadly. And on the positive side, don’t read your Bible because it makes you happy, don’t go to church because you get blessed when you’re there, and don’t confess sin because your conscience feels better when you do.

So why do Christians obey God? Why do they seek to kill their sin and live a godly life? Because our sins are paid for, every last one of them. Because we are learning to see our sin more clearly as the years pass, and cling to Jesus in the midst of our failures. Because our King lived perfectly on our behalf. Because we have no fear that our sin will separate us from God ever again. Because we know that our very good deeds themselves come from the Holy Spirit in us, not our own efforts. Because, in short, we are free from condemnation and guilt, from slavery to the law, from the pressure to perform. We can live in that freedom, obeying sometimes, sinning often, failing regularly, confident that no one can snatch us from the hand of our Savior.

That is good news.

Believe that, friends. Don’t settle for the message of consequentialism, and don’t put your hope in the fear of consequences to keep you from sinning. Trust in a God who perfectly holds you and keeps you faithful by his power.

Deep Wounds and Hello Kitty Bandaids

Hello Kitty bandaids work better than normal ones; this is scientific fact, indisputable. Ask my nieces. Given the choice between a plain beige bandaid and a Hello Kitty one, they will choose the Hello Kitty one 100 times out of 100. They’re medical miracles. They dry up tears, stop pain, and return a three-year-old to normal play mode as quick as a wink.

They also don’t work on a deep wound.

Everyone knows this when it comes to physical injuries. Your child slices her arm open, and you’re rushing for the car keys, not the bandaids, Hello Kitty or otherwise. Worse, your child is diagnosed with some chronic disease or illness, and you know that no amount of licenced products are going to help.

But reveal a struggle with depression, or anxiety, or panic attacks, or dark, spiraling despair, and suddenly the same people who would advise a 911 call and some prompt medical attention, or long-term medical treatment, are handing out bandaid answers like you just skinned your knee.

Today I read of a husband’s agony as he watched his wife struggle with post-partum depression. The comments section was character bandaids galore: make sure she’s getting enough B vitamins! one commenter insisted. Don’t forget to make confession of sin part of your daily life, said another. No, no, don’t use the Hulk bandaids, no one likes those. Have these bandaids instead!

All I can say to that is… don’t.

Just… don’t do that.

Friends, sin is not always, or predictably, the cause of suffering. Jesus rebuked the pharisees for thinking that a man’s blindness resulted from his sin or that of his parents. Suffering does not always seem to have a purpose; sometimes it doesn’t seem to have a cause, or a reason, or an origin. It’s not always taken away when we pray (2 Cor 12), or even when we treat it medically (Luke 8).

But for the Christian, suffering is always part of the hard providence of God, never escaping his notice or care, never catching him off guard. Satan himself must seek God’s permission to trouble us, and his power is always limited — how much more must the suffering we experience be controlled and limited by a loving and watchful Father!

True suffering defies and confounds tidy, pat answers. If the tools with which we approach it don’t go beyond a range of bandaids with superheros and cartoon characters splashed across them, we will have no comfort to offer those who desperately need it.

“Women Aren’t as Visual as Men” and Other Dangerous Lies

I read yet another article today in which a mother of boys reminds young women to be cautious about the pictures they post of themselves on facebook. It was all fair enough, though made slightly ironic by the photographs of her sons doing muscle-man poses in their swim trunks that were scattered throughout the article. But post Twerk-Gate, I’m not surprised by the content: the message that girls need to be counter-culturally modest gets recirculated around the Christian blogosphere every time a celebrity strips off in public or there’s a new case of teenage boys being arrested for passing around naked pictures of their girlfriends. You could practically write a Post-Scandal Mad Lib template: something about degradation, something about self-respect, something about how far our society has fallen, and a whooooole bunch about modesty, but only, or at least primarily, in the context of preventing lust among men and boys.

It’s all well-intentioned and mostly not terrible, but when it comes to modesty… you already know how I feel about that. (If you’re too lazy to click on those links, here’s a tip: in the Bible, modesty isn’t exclusively or even mostly about not looking “sexy.” It’s not mostly about covering up. It’s not even mostly directed at women, or in reference to men.)

But you might not know how I feel about the underlying assumption of a lot of these appeals, namely that men are always and forever, world without end, stimulated visually, and women just… aren’t; that there is a direct line between scantily clad women and men’s sexual sin, so please please ladies, if you love your brothers, cover up — I know you don’t understand because you’re not wired that way, but we are, so please please please…

So are you ready for this? That stuff is just not true. Men and women are different; that’s awesome, hooray. And I think mothers and fathers need to encourage their daughters (and sons!) to dress and comport themselves with modesty and dignity… but y’all, come on: we can’t just look at men, extrapolate from their experiences and preferences, and then assume women are the opposite. It’s lazy. It’s ridiculous. Women are women, humans made in God’s image in their own right, not just un-men. People will often cite these mysterious “studies” in which it is “proven” that women are more into words and men are more into pictures. But let me tell you why I have a problem with that.

First, I’m not sure you can deduce biological causality about men’s wiring from actions and characteristics that could just as easily be attributed to cultural expectations about how men act and what they like. A boy who’s grown up in our porn-saturated, women-as-props-in-male-fantasies society is not exactly a good control subject for an experiment designed to reveal pure biology. Second, just anecdotally, I don’t know one (straight) woman who isn’t physically attracted to the hotness of “hot” guy, whatever her definition of “hot” is. No, not every woman finds shirtless Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love attractive, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t visually stimulated for goodness’ sake. I also don’t know any men who don’t care about personality or character when choosing a potential spouse. And regarding that last point, I think it’s terribly insulting to men to imply that they’re basically just big hairy bundles of id, derping along until they find themselves in proximity to a hot, immodestly-dressed woman, whereupon they can do nothing but fall immediately into sexual sin.

Third, I think this set of lies is particularly dangerous because of where it leads. A couple of anecdotes:

A popular marriage book (which I won’t name here lest I get some of its terrifying supporters in the comments) describes in graphic detail the supposedly-true story of a young man, filled with lust at the sight of the snug-skirted young woman standing in front of him in church; the book’s author blames the young woman’s immodesty for causing his problem, implying that the young man’s lust was a purely biological response for which he couldn’t possibly be held responsible. If you can’t see the danger of blaming women for the sexual sin of men, maybe you need to read about the judge who last week sentenced a 49-year-old man convicted of raping his 14-year-old student to just 30 days in prison, claiming the victim’s maturity and apparent sexual control over the relationship as mitigating factors in the perpetrator’s guilt, despite the fact that, in the state of Montana, a 14-year-old cannot legally give consent, and the fact that the girl went on to commit suicide.

In addition to that issue, there’s also the fact that pornography use among women has skyrocketed in the last few years; among older teens and women in their early 20s, rates are rapidly approaching those of men of the same age. When we constantly beat the drum of Men Being Visual And Women Being Emotional, we are driving women who struggle in this area into seclusion and shame; when we offer resources to conquer porn addictions primarily in the context of men’s accountability groups, or hasten to add, “We know this won’t apply to most of you ladies” when teaching about pornography, or in any other way make sexual sin a male or female thing, we are heaping condemnation on these sisters, who now have to deal with feeling like freaks because they’re struggling with something that “isn’t really a woman problem.”

When the sum of our exhortation to women regarding sexual sin is to tell them to avoid Fifty Shades of Grey and make sure they don’t show any cleavage, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we treat men like out-of-control sex maniacs, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we talk about any sin as though it’s the exclusive territory of one group or another in the church, or rely on stereotypes and hackneyed statistics, we do a disservice to everyone in the church. Let’s seek a better path.

Yet More from Anna Karenina

“Peaceful with six children Darya Alexandrovna could not be. One would fall ill, another might easily become so, a third would be without something necessary, a fourth would show symptoms of a bad disposition, and so on. Rare indeed were the brief periods of peace. But these cares and anxieties were for Darya Alexandrovna the sole happiness possible. Had it not been for them, she would have been left alone to brood over her husband who did not love her.

“And besides, hard though it was for the mother to bear the dread of illness, the illnesses themselves, and the grief of seeing signs of evil propensities in her children — the children themselves were even now repaying her in small joys for her sufferings. Those joys were so small that they passed unnoticed, like gold in sand, and at bad moments she could see nothing but the pain, nothing but sand; but there were good moments too when she saw nothing but the joy, nothing but gold.”

I just… wow, you guys. Wow.

I’ve thought about doing a review of Anna Karenina as I go along, but it’s so beautiful and awful, so gutting, that most of my responses to it are purely emotional — and it’s tough to write groans and sighs and staring agape at the page and shifting restlessly in one’s seat and feeling the hairs stand up on the back of one’s neck, to say nothing of how it might be to read such a thing! So I think I’ll spare you my “reviews” and just let Tolstoy speak for himself, hey?

Believe It or Not, the Opposite of “Inerrancy” Isn’t Always “Errancy.”

The other day, a guy I run across in the blog-world was talking about how he sometimes gets fired up by what he termed the “Three E’s” — Errancy, Egalitarianism, and Evolution. These were my next thoughts:

hghiludfjkdfjsfhf iouwfhj oijoijdwwa

Coherent, eh? The implication is, of course, that anyone who doesn’t affirm inerrancy is an “errantist,” believing that the Scriptures are actually full of error. Yargh. I have a pretty big problem with that view (not to mention the attitude behind it), and I’ll tell you why.

*rolls up sleeves*

Preliminary data: inerrancy, which is the doctrine that the Scriptures are without error in everything they affirm, has been a pretty major battle ground over the last few decades and has been settled, one way or another, to the point that affirmation of inerrancy tends to be one of the identifying characteristics of Evangelicals. Inerrantists (I think rightly) believe that the absolute truthfulness of Scripture is an extremely important issue, and not one to be given up or compromised, so they use terms like “non-negotiable” and “essential” to describe the doctrine. Got all that? OK.

It’s true that the most vocal opponents of the concept of inerrancy have been people whose commitment to a modernist, materialist worldview precludes belief in any sort of divine character to Scripture. To them, it’s not divine, not authoritative, not inspired except in the way that, say, Shakespeare or Ovid were “inspired.” But this whole debate is quite new, and there are entire great big groups of Christians who just didn’t get involved at all — people like confessional Lutherans, Anglicans, and other folks on the higher-church end of the spectrum. They never absorbed the language of “without error in its original manuscripts” and the like. And that’s where the problems start to arise.

Some inerrantists steadfastly refuse to differentiate between people whose ultimate desire is to undermine the authority or divine character of Scripture and people who, say, don’t feel comfortable with the sometimes sterile-sounding language of inerrancy. Some use the term itself as a sort of shibboleth of orthodoxy, badgering people to sign on the proverbial dotted line of inerrancy (“No, just tell me. Are you? It’s not a hard question. Just answer.”). Some point to it as the test of, if not orthodoxy per se, then at least membership in the Evangelical community.

But there are a great many Christians who have never had this conversation, and who simply believe that the Bible is true. There are many who belong to denominations and traditions where the truthfulness of Scripture is taken as an article of faith, confessionally, rather than as a matter to be handled with lengthy treatises on exactly which documents can be given which terminology. Many more, while submitting to the authority, truthfulness, and sufficiency of Scripture, simply find themselves uncomfortable with a doctrine they see as a Procrustean bed, as restrictive rather than expansive. I don’t necessarily agree with all these objections, but I understand them. I recognize that my conscience cannot dictate the consciences of other believers, and I also recognize that, though some believers, just by personality, take great comfort and find great freedom in meticulously-delineated doctrines, others do not. Being Type A is not a prerequisite for membership in the family of God.

And this is why it’s important to ask questions rather than make assumptions, especially about our brothers and sisters in Christ. When someone asks, “Are you an inerrantist?” or “Are you a Calvinist?” or “Are you a creationist?” or whatever, the best response, in my estimation, is, “Well, what do you mean by that?” And on the other side, if someone says, “Oh, I could never be an XYZ,” I reckon it’s pretty important to find out what they mean by XYZ and how it affects the rest of their doctrine. And ask positive questions, too: stuff like “So, what do you believe about the Bible?”

Between brothers and sisters, questions like this should be conversation-starters, not conversation-enders. We cannot use these catch-phrases as code words for who’s “in” and who’s “out.” That kind of spiritual arrogance is exactly what got this guy a starring role as a baddy in one of Jesus’ parables.

Stewardship, Frugality, and Being In It for the Long Haul

True confessions time. Budgeting is not my strong suit. If you’ve known me for more than five minutes and/or you have any ability to observe or discern, you’ll have guessed that already, because structure in general is not my strong suit. I’m not into schedules or spreadsheets or files or anything like that. When talking about what I do every day, I like to use words like “rhythm” and “flow” and “pattern.” I don’t typically pay my bills the same day every month (although most of them are on auto-pay). And until recently, I didn’t have a good idea of how much I was spending a month on various things. Sure, my mortgage payment’s always the same, and my condo fees, but if you had asked me how much I spent per month on gas or groceries or necessities, I could have given you a vague ballpark range, but nothing specific.

Recently I decided that it was probably a good idea to cut that out. So I got a little free software (which I don’t like AT ALL; totally switching to something else if anyone has any suggestions) and downloaded a file from my bank and got a bit of a shock. I was spending at least a hundred dollars more a month on groceries and eating out than I’d thought, and a couple other categories were ten or fifteen percent more than I would have estimated.

Now, this might seem unrelated but it’s not. I’ve also been going over in my mind a saying about food that I love: You either spend money on food or you spend money on the doctor. I’m not really willing to cut back on groceries in the traditional way — buying cheaper meat, eating more white foods and grains, etc. — because I’m convinced that doing so is penny wise and pound foolish. What’s an extra fifty bucks a month for groceries compared to thousands of dollars in medical bills that could have been avoided if I’d been more careful about what I put in my body?

I think when we talk about stewardship we typically think of money first — and don’t get me wrong, it’s important! I certainly need to be more creative about adjusting my budget to enable me to be more generous, and I absolutely need to cultivate cheerful giving rather than giving out of duty or guilt. But giving generously is only part of the picture. I think stewardship is also about making sure that we can continue to be generous for many years to come, generous with our lives and work and ministry as well as with our money, and unfortunately too many Christians forget that. I forget it all the time. I forget that this body is the only one I get in this life, and how I care for it matters. I want to be an 80-year-old woman who can still take walks on a beautiful day, and who can counsel and encourage younger women, who can open her home to others and help them financially too, and who reads and writes and appreciates beauty and is still strong and healthy. I realize that I can’t control all the factors that play into that, but I can control some of them.

So I’m scheming. I’m figuring out how I can re-work my spending to enable me to be generous, and at the same time maintain a lifestyle that will allow me to keep on being generous for many decades to come, Lord willing.

Some Thoughts and Questions on the Lord’s Supper, Ordination, and the Sacraments of the Church

A few days ago, I posted the following thought on Facebook: “You know what I miss about Sojourn when I’m away? Communion every week. I’d love to know why churches only do it once a month or even quarterly (!!!) — there has to be SOME rationale, right? Thoughts? Did I just sleep through that part of my church history classes?”

Twenty-five comments later (I only wish my blog posts could get so much traction!), the thing that stuck out the most to me wasn’t the reason for the infrequency of communion in some churches. It was a totally different — yet not completely unrelated — theological point. A friend from college mentioned Methodist circuit riders, who were often lay ministers and who, therefore, weren’t allowed to administer the Lord’s Supper, leading to the practice of monthly or quarterly communion. Another friend mentioned that his church couldn’t share the Meal on the rare occasions that their ordained teaching elder is out of town.

My immediate question was why? Why does a meal ordained by Jesus himself also need an ordained pastor/elder to make it legitimate? And then that question made me chuckle a bit as I reflected on the fact that, though some churches who partake only quarterly began doing so at least in part to avoid a Romanist ritualism, almost nothing, in my mind, is more Roman than requiring the presence of an ordained minister to “perform” the sacraments.

Now, for heaven’s sake don’t hear me accusing my dear Methodist or Presbyterian brethren of quasi-Popery! It just got me wondering. My own church doesn’t allow, for example, community groups to celebrate the Lord’s supper in their small weeknight gatherings. Many, many faithful, gospel-teaching churches would, I’m sure, have similar proscriptions. My question is: why? Do we have any indication that, in the apostolic church, someone “official” was required to be present at Christian gatherings to administer the sacraments? Isn’t the very name — the authority and command — of Jesus what makes them valid in the first place?

These questions aren’t merely rhetorical; I would genuinely love to hear the thoughts of those who are committed to these sorts of positions. Why should a group of covenanted believers be prevented from baptizing a new convert or celebrating the Lord’s supper as part of a celebratory meal without the presence of an ordained minister? Why does ordination matter, anyway? What purpose does it serve, and what justification does it have historically?

Dust

When I went to look at what had long been hidden,
A jewel laid long ago in a secret place,
I trembled, for I thought to see its dark deep fire—
But only a pinch of dust blew up in my face.

I almost gave my life long ago for a thing
That has gone to dust now, stinging my eyes—
It is strange how often a heart must be broken
Before the years can make it wise.
 
-- Sara Teasdale 
 
(HT: She's No Lady) 

Lent, Day 23: Ugh?

Does it make me a bad person that I just can’t get worked up about the word “inerrancy”? Most people in the church I grew up in probably have never heard the word. That’s ok. Some people have a problem with the connotation of the word — that it’s overly-precise or connotes a sort of scientific view of Scripture that’s not in view when we’re talking about truthfulness. That’s ok with me too.  Some people don’t like it because it refers, as a technical term, to manuscripts we don’t possess (namely the autographs or original copies). I totally get the hesitation. If someone isn’t rejecting the larger understanding of the truthfulness of Scripture or using a non-inerrantist position to excuse disobedience to God’s word, I honestly can’t make myself care that they discard the term itself. Is that wrong?

Someone is probably going to knock on my door in a minute and take away my Young, Restless, and Reformed card.

On Hitting A Wall and Hating My Own Voice

When I was in college, I was a mediocre writer.  I got a bit better over the years thanks in no small part to an excellent creative writing prof who frequently eviscerated my verbose poetry, but in a really nice, upper-Midwest way, with a smile on her face, until it stopped being overwrought brain dumps and started to be lean distillations of emotional experience.

In seminary, writing dullsville reports on the minutiae of evangelistic techniques and scrambling for essay topics that wouldn’t put me or the grader to sleep, my writing got both better and worse.  More technical, perhaps a bit more precise, but thudding and heavy.

When I started writing this blog, I went through phases.  One week I’d toss out the same overwrought brain dumps I’d been carefully trained not to write, and the next obsess over word choice and syntax for hours before deleting the lot.  Now, having been out of seminary for going on three years, not having had to write a paper for anyone’s approval, not having deadlines and due dates looming, I’ve gotten sloppy.  I want that taut academic precision back in my writing.  I want to stop sounding like a cross between the Fug Girls and Ree Drummond, which, I fear, is the voice that’s developed.

So, all that to say, I will probably be writing here quite a bit more than usual, because practice, as they say, makes perfect.

Alienating Verbal Tics

Just thinking of these last night.  They tend to disconnect people from the conversation.  Can you think of any others?

Habitually starting sentences with “No,” or “No way,” even when you’re agreeing or the sentence isn’t subject to agreement or disagreement.

“Shut up,” when said as, “You’re kidding!”  This one’s tough for me.

Saying, “You have no idea,” or “You don’t even know.”  This one is particularly bad.  It’s mostly intended as something like, “The situation I’m referring to was really bad/good,” but it comes across as, “I have experiences you could never dream about.”  Makes you sound super arrogant.

A Tiiiiny Rant

Scenario: Somewhere in blog-land, someone says, with genuine curiosity, “Y’know, I just don’t get ___.  Can someone explain it to me?”  The first half-dozen replies are either, “Me either!” or “Here’s my opinion, but to each his own.”

AND THEN.

Some ravening pseudo-intellectual turns from monitoring all the OTHER regions of blog-land to sniff, “You know what I just hate?  Elitism.  I just cannot abide people who think that no one else’s opinions, experiences, or thoughts matter.  It’s just this (food-snob/Calvinist/seminary-educated/white/yuppie/middle-class/Western/xenophobic) hegemony that I cannot stand, where people think that their views come down from heaven written by the finger of God.  Ugh.  Judgmentalism!”  And then they go back to trolling at all the other foodie/natural-birth/theology/whatever blogs on which they misuse vocabulary from their Word-of-the-Day calendars.

I saw this today on a fun foodie message board I frequent, in which someone said they didn’t get the concept of drinking a certain kind of beverage with dinner.  Everything is going along fine until some snark starts dropping passive-aggressive crap like “that doesn’t make you the Ultimate Critic” and “running screaming to the judgment booth”.

What kind of idiots are we if we can’t respond to a legitimate question without resorting to rhetoric like this?  And what kind of idiots are we if we take the bait?

Seriously? (and a few random notes)

Whoa. I just scrolled down through this page and realized I’ve written almost nothing of theological significance in the last several weeks. Zoinks. It’s probably one of two things: either I am a hopeless sinner blinded the trivialities of daily life, or I spend every day talking about God’s precious word and his sovereignty in human history, teaching third, fourth, and eighth graders about this beautiful, broken world God will one day redeem, and by the time I get home, I’m all theologied out. Or maybe both.

So… there’s a sizable kerfluffle in the blog world over the issue of whether or not Christians should celebrate a particular holiday with supposedly pagan roots. A holiday whose celebration, detractors claim, sends Christians inevitably down an idolatrous spiral of demon-worship. A holiday whose practices are outlawed by chapter and verse in Jeremiah. Pagan worship! Outright idolatry! Animism!

Well, good heavens, you might say! What is this pernicious, godless event that we’ve thoughtlessly allowed into our homes, welcoming with it the very blackest forms of paganism?

It’s not Halloween. It’s Christmas.

No, seriously.

Apparently, Jeremiah 10:2-4 condemns the practice of putting up and decorating Christmas trees. Leaving aside the kinda comical levels of anachronism we’ve got here, let’s not be hasty. Judge for yourself:

Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

OK. So what we have here is… God telling the people not to put up Christmas trees? Huh. Weird.

Because it seems to me that what’s actually happening is that Jeremiah the prophet is warning Judah that their sin is fixin’ to bring down God’s wrath and judgment, and this passage is part of God’s case against them. It just so happens that last week’s Bible lesson at school was “The Ministry of Jeremiah.” So tell me, third and fourth graders, what was the main sin of Judah that caused God to send judgment on them?

Idolatry.

And why is idolatry not only sinful but also stupid? Because, as Isaiah says, idolaters take a log, carve half of it into a statue they bow down to, and throw the other half onto the fire to make their dinner. Because, Jeremiah reminds them, the idols are mute, they’re nothing, they can’t even move from place to place but have to be carried (10:5). Condemnation of Christmas trees? Ummmm… I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that that’s NOT a responsible exegesis of this passage.

There are more legs to their argument (the only birthdays mentioned in the Scriptures are those of pagans whom God struck down so we have no business celebrating Jesus’ birthday, Yule celebrates demonic pagan deities and harkens back to weird druidy times, etc.), and I could pick each one apart, but I just can’t… be bothered. It’s all so silly! Surely there are other things we could focus on, right?

(Incidentally, this is a great example of what one blog I recently read called “The Arithmetic Method” of theology. Thought-provoking article. Check it out.)

So, here are a couple things you could focus on if you felt like it:

1. Listen up, Church. (I’m about to get fired up here, so watch out!) Stop letting Joel and Victoria Osteen off the hook. Stop justifying their heresy. Stop nurturing the notion that they’re merely addled — like that sweet but dim-witted cousin everybody loves while being slightly embarassed about — and get it in your head that they are preaching a different Gospel. Go read Galatians 1:8. (Go ahead, I’ll wait…) The Osteens are inviting a curse on themselves. Stay far, far away from their “ministry” and, if you love your brothers and sisters in Christ, warn them about it too.

2. Open iTunes (or the legal online music acquisition apparatus of your choice) and download the following albums immediately: Shai Linne’s Storiez, Flame’s Our World Redeemed, and LeCrae’s Rebel. Then revel and rejoice in the work God is doing through these warriors of the faith and their bold Gospel preaching.

And Now For Something Completely Different…

Michael Pollan’s beautiful, sweeping, joyous, practical, intense, inspiring, provocative, stunningly magisterial open letter to the incoming president (whoever he may turn out to be) in the Sunday New York Times Magazine section, all about revolutionizing and returning to our agrarian roots.

It’s nine pages long, wordy for a newspaper article, but is so thrillingly visionary that you’ll be finished before you know it. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

No Comment

The typical parent, when whacking a misbehaving child, doesn’t pause to wonder: “What does science have to say about the efficacy of corporal punishment?” If they are thinking anything at all, it’s: “Here comes justice!” And while the typical parent may not know or care, the science on corporal punishment of kids is pretty clear. Despite the rise of the timeout and other nonphysical forms of punishment, most American parents hit, pinch, shake, or otherwise lay violent hands on their youngsters: 63 percent of parents physically discipline their 1- to 2-year-olds, and 85 percent of adolescents have been physically punished by their parents. Parents cite children’s aggression and failure to comply with a request as the most common reasons for hitting them.

–Alan E. Kazdin, “Spare the Rod,” Slate.com

OK, maybe ONE comment.

AARRRRRGH!!

Justification By Faith

Poking around the Matthias Media website today I came across an outstanding article on justification by faith — an interview with the Principal of London Theological Seminary, who has written a book on the subject. The entire article is well worth reading, but here are a few choice quotes:

What spiritual effect will the doctrine of justification by faith have in the believer’s life?

I think the main effect will be one of tremendous joy. It’s a wonderful thing to wake up each day and realize that, although I’m an unworthy sinner, nevertheless, I am accepted in Christ. Further, I don’t have to work for my acceptance. Life is not about keeping God happy by performance. It gives me enormous joy to know that the most important person in the universe accepts me as I am because of the merits of Jesus Christ credited to me.

Again, it’s an amazing relief to know that God has dealt with all my sins and faults. He’s taken my guilt away. I am accepted in Christ. I know that if I was to die tonight, I would go to be with my Lord in heaven.

Furthermore, now that I know that I’m saved through trusting Christ, I don’t have to be terrified of the threat of Purgatory. I don’t have any worries about whether people will pray for me after I die, or whether they’ll light candles for me. Nor do I have to worry about whether my friends and relatives will pay to have masses offered for me after my death. Justification through faith deals with these and many other fears.

Also:

What will happen if the church loses the doctrine of justification by faith?

The first thing that will happen is that the Church will no longer have a gospel to declare. There will be no good news.

Second, believers will lose their sense of assurance. We will wonder if we have ever done enough to please God. “Are we good enough?” we will ask. On the other hand, if we believe this doctrine, it will have a significant impact on our lives. First, we will have peace with God. This means that we will be able to approach God as a friend. Second, it also means that we will have a totally different attitude to sin. When I think of all that God has done for me in Christ, I should hate sin with all my heart. When I reflect on what it cost the Son of God—damnation upon the cross, punishment in body, mind and spirit—I should loathe sin with every part of my being. When I know that I have been justified by grace through faith, I should delight in obeying the One who loved me and gave himself for me.

Heavenly Father,

It was your eternal purpose to give all people life through mothers,
and to send your Son in flesh through a mother’s womb.

Bless our mothers as they follow you,
and guide them as they seek you.

Give them wisdom, that they may instruct their children faithfully.

Grant them discernment as they pray for their children;
shape their hearts that they might desire the gospel to shine forth in their children’s lives.

Lord, you know what we need even before we ask. We earnestly seek your perfect will for our mothers, so that they might raise up children whose lives declare the Gospel of your Son, by whose sinless life, perfect death, and glorious resurrection we come before you with our requests.

Amen

Compare. Discuss.

N.B. — Please do not take this (necessarily) as a criticism of contemporary worship music, except in the broadest sense of the word “criticism” — i.e., evaluation. What is good about each? What could use improving? Why? Is there a drawback to the complexity in the older songs? Also, stole the first comparison from John Dekker.

Two Songs With the Same Title But Very Different Purposes…

Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.

Other refuge have I none, hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah! leave me not alone, still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed, all my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head with the shadow of Thy wing.

Wilt Thou not regard my call? Wilt Thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall—Lo! on Thee I cast my care;
Reach me out Thy gracious hand! While I of Thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand, dying, and behold, I live.

Thou, O Christ, art all I want, more than all in Thee I find;
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint, heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is Thy Name, I am all unrighteousness;
False and full of sin I am; Thou art full of truth and grace.

Plenteous grace with Thee is found, grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound; make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art, freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart; rise to all eternity.

– Charles Wesley, 1740.

Jesus, lover of my soul.
Jesus, I will never let You go.
You’ve taken me from the miry clay,
Set my feet upon a rock, and now I know.

I love You, I need You.
Though my world may fall,
I’ll never let You go.
My Savior, my closest friend,
I will worship You until the very end
.

– John Ezzy, Daniel Grul & Steve McPherson, 1992.

And Two Songs With Different Titles But the Same Purpose (Love Songs For Jesus)…

Majestic Sweetness Sits Enthroned
Majestic sweetness sits enthroned
Upon the Savior’s brow
His head with radiant glories crowned
His lips with grace o’erflow

No mortal can with Him compare
Among the sons of men
Fairer is He than all the fair
Who fill the heavenly train

He saw me plunged in deep distress
And flew to my relief
For me he bore the shameful cross
And carried all my grief

To him I owe my life and breath
And all the joys I have
He makes me triumph over death
And saves me from the grave

– Samuel Stennett

Your Love Is Extravagant
Your love is extravagant
Your friendship, (mm-mm) intimate
I find I’m moving to the rhythms of your grace
Your fragrance is intoxicating in our secret place
Your love is extravagant

Spread wide in the arms of Christ
Is a love that covers sin
No greater love have I ever known
You considered me a friend
Capture my heart again

– Darrell Evans

What a Friend I’ve Found
What a friend I’ve found
Closer than a brother
I have felt your touch
More intimate than lovers
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, friend forever

What a hope I’ve found
More faithful than a mother
It would break my heart
To ever lose each other
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, friend forever

– Martin Smith

Worldview

world·view (wûrldvy)
n. In both senses also called Weltanschauung.

  1. The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.
  2. A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.

[Translation of German Weltanschauung.]

“Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality — and the intellectual holding of that truth and then living in light of that Truth.”
— Francis Schaeffer

cul·ture (klchr)
n.

The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

    1. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population: Edwardian culture; Japanese culture; the culture of poverty.
    2. These patterns, traits, and products considered with respect to a particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression: religious culture in the Middle Ages; musical culture; oral culture.
    3. The predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.

re·deem (r-dm)
tr.v. re·deemed, re·deem·ing, re·deems

  1. To recover ownership of by paying a specified sum.
  2. To pay off (a promissory note, for example).
  3. To turn in (coupons, for example) and receive something in exchange.
  4. To fulfill (a pledge, for example).
  5. To convert into cash: redeem stocks.
  6. To set free; rescue or ransom.
  7. To save from a state of sinfulness and its consequences.
  8. To make up for: The low price of the clothes dryer redeems its lack of special features.
  9. To restore the honor, worth, or reputation of: You botched the last job but can redeem yourself on this one.