Archive for July, 2012

There are lots of ways to pray, but this is one good way Jesus taught us to do it.

Our Father, who art in heaven

OK, so we are talking to God, God the Father. Not some other God, or to ourselves, but to God to the true God. He lives in heaven. We are down here on earth.

Hallowed be thy name.

Hallowed means holy, set apart, very special. God is special. There is nobody else like him. He’s the only God there is.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Here’s the deal. In heaven, everything that God wants to happen, his will, *snap* just happens. He think it, it happens. His will is done. Everything he wants to do, he just does. On earth though, he set things up a bit different. He is Lord of everything. God is in control of everything, but on earth, some stuff happens slowly. Not everything that God wants to have happen happens right away. He’s decided to do things over time so we can be part of it. We’re in time, and here on earth, God does stuff in time. Sometimes it might not seem like he’s doing anything, but he is. It might just take a while to see what he’s doing. When we pray for his will do be done on earth, we are asking him to DO his thing, here, with us, and soon. His Kingdom is everywhere where his will is done. In heaven, that’s everywhere. On the earth, it’s everywhere too, but not yet. We ask him to make it so.

Give us this day, our daily bread

Do we ask God to give us this day, lots of really nice toys? God please give daddy a fancy guitar? God, please give me lots of money!? No. We aren’t asking for that, be we are asking for food to eat, and clothes to wear and a safe place to live. God will give us those things. We don’t really need anything else, so we just ask for our daily bread. That’s all we need. All the other stuff is nice, but it’s just extra. He gives us lots of that too.

and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

When we do something bad, we need to ask forgiveness. He will always forgive us when we fail. Other people might not, but God will always forgive us and He’s the only one that counts. We also ask him to help US forgive other people when they do bad things to us. When people are mean to us or hurt us, we need to forgive them, just like he forgives us. That’s not always easy so we ask him for help in this part of the prayer.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Temptation is when we want to do something bad. We ask God to help us not do bad things – not to have a bad attitude, not to be mean to people, not to lie or steal. Those are all icky things that come from INSIDE us. We ask him to help us not do those things. But, we also ask him to protect us from bad stuff OUTSIDE us too – bad stuff other people might do to us. In some parts of the world, there are bad guys that will rob you or kill you. It’s not safe. We are pretty safe here, but people can still be very mean sometimes. We ask God to protect us from that evil – the bad stuff inside us and outside us.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.

At the end of the prayer we tell God that he is the best and that he is the most powerful person in the whole universe and that everything he wants to do will be done forever and ever, no matter what we do. And that’s a really good thing.

This is one strange hotel. On the one hand, it’s luxurious – right i the middle of the city, close to sights and food and night-life. There’s a fridge filled with complimentary food and cupboards of the same. The kitchen is spacious, as is the lobby. The parking is free in a place that typically costs $15 a night just for your car. The rooms are all clean and well-stocked. A careful screening and referral process ensures that the riff raff stays out. Best of all, the whole thing is completely free!

The catch? Well, the place is only for sick children. Really sick. There are 17 families staying here, but I rarely see any of them. Several are cancer patients confined to their rooms. The girl at the table across from me has a tube coming out her nose. The two kids at the other table have masks on. Next to the milk in the communal fridge are a couple of IV bags. The boy we met last night in the common room is having his remaining eye fixed by the same surgeon our daughter is seeing. He was in good spirits then, wearing a t-shirt featuring a giant eyeball monster. Quite appropriate. Tonight, he’s nowhere to be seen. His mother says the anesthesia has been making him throw up all evening. Bummer. Our kids are having a blast in the playroom with a couple of Latino kids the same age. I chat with the mom. The difference is that my kids have their own kidneys. One of her sons is now running off one of hers – recently donated. They are both recovering.

This morning, three ophthalmologists huddle over our sedated daughter, checking her out with microscopes, cameras, prisms, pressure readers and ultrasounds. The conclusion? This eyeball sort of works. (We knew that.) That other one? It’s toast. Messing with it any more is just asking for trouble. Let’s just leave it. Believe it or not, that comes as a relief. No more being strung along by possibilities, no more decisions to make. It always was a long shot. Now it’s a no-shot.

Kids love band-aids. They need to show off their war wounds. We cover her bad eye with a hard shell patch she is proud of, even though nothing actually happened to it today.

In-between hospital visits, we’ve mostly been trying to keep the kids engaged. All six of us have visited several parks, hung out in the well-stocked play room, and ridden the hospital gondola and elevator up and down and up and down. Tomorrow, the zoo or perhaps the science center is on the list, after another exam. I did get a chance to hit Stumptown coffee. Such a floral espresso! Very nice, but I think I can say now that I prefer something thick and chocolatey in the long run – Bucer’s on a good day, or Zoka.

The Safeway is very different from the one at home. The produce area is large and immaculately stacked. The red meat section measures about 2 feet in length. Whole Foods is the competition here, not the BBQ butcher. The guy in front of me is talking to Siru on his iPhone 4GS while complaining to the cashier that he can’t use his food stamps because the EBT terminal is down. Maybe if I went on food stamps I could get a smart phone too. I try to take the little cart out of the store to haul my groceries to the van and I nearly have a spill as the magnetic wheel locks engage to prevent me from stealing the cart. I leave my retail-bound vehicle to the wolves and precariously haul my four bags a block away to my car, passing by a middle-aged homeless woman urinating on one of the bushes. Fortunately my driving instincts, though often faulty, get me back through the maze of hospitals and to our safe house where everyone is now asleep. At least they’ll have Cheerios tomorrow – a special request from the little girl.

I’ve always loved this old Calvin and Hobbes strip:

“Lowering your expectations until they are already met.” It’s supposed to be funny of course, but I think it is remarkably true. Some may take it as snide – drawing attention to someones shortcomings, but I think this makes for an excellent definition of unconditional love.

Lower your expectations until they are already met. Give up your demands on the other person until you love them just as they are right now. If that person changes – if they get old on you, warm up to you, betray you, forget about you – whatever. Your demands of them drop away until grace has swallowed them up, swallowed you up, swallowed your relationship up whole.

This is what Christ did for us. While we hated him and disregarded him, he died for us. He didn’t expect us to get our act together or reciprocate some of his love. He lowered himself to the point where all of that was already met. With regards to our relationship with the Father, he stepped in and covered that for us in its entirety.

What are your expectations of a responsible parent toward a baby? A heck of a lot. They must watch out for them every minute, feed them, change them, teach them, on and on. What is the expectation for the baby? Must they show remarkable kindness and unselfish understanding toward the parent? Of course not. They don’t do jack squat. Not a thing. You hope they don’t cry all day long, but that is a desire for reciprocated love. Your love as the parent is unmoving. Your demand of them is unbelievably low.

This sort of love is the only way to forgive someone for something truly terrible. It is modeled on God’s love for us. It is completely unilateral. It is arbitrary. It does not depend on the other person’s response or even knowledge of the love. It is unmediated. It is unstoppable.

Friendship and affection are other things sometimes implied in the word “love”, but I am talking about the divine unconditional variety. Having high expectations of ourselves, when unchecked by grace, is a crushing burden. Putting this burden on others is all law and no love. Open your hands. Lower your expectations. Let go. Perhaps they may even lower their expectations of you too. Then you can rejoice at what comes spontaneously!

Luther said that the end of the law is the beginning of freedom. Well, the end of expectations is the beginning of love. With all the expectations intact, it is just desire.

Over the last few days, there has been quite a brouhaha on the web over a quote that Together For the Gospel contributor Jared Wilson posted from an older book, Fidelity, by Doug Wilson (no relation). The material was both shrilly denounced and shrilly defended from several sides.

By far the most balanced summary of the responses can be found in this post from Alistair.

In observing the entire thing, I just wanted to add the following. I’ve felt this way on many occasions, but have refrained from ever saying anything about it openly. This seemed like as good of opportunity as ever.

From comments on the post linked above:

“Pastor Wilson may have too great of an attraction to a clever turn of phrase, and the associated incessant projection of smartness, for the good of his thinking or his hearers. Being accountable for one’s words, and being prepared to retract or apologize for them on occasions (without, of course, merely allowing all of the objections of your critics), is necessary if you are to retain credibility. We all sin or slip in our words on occasions: if we never apologize or retract a statement we may gain a sense of rhetorical self-righteousness, but we stand to lose much of the respect and hearing of others in the process.”

Yes indeed.

Doug, Doug, Doug, you’ve written so many books. I’ve read a bunch of them over the past 10 years. Some of the ideas I don’t agree with, but much of it is so very good. But in those thousands of pages, thousands of quickly written posts on your blog, do you not ever miss the mark? Not once? Not a single word? You came close to hinting so once with that extra chapter to The Serrated Edge that you posted a few years back, but even that was phrased more as, “I’m writing this because a bunch of boneheads misunderstood what I wrote the first time.” Not, “What I wrote the first time could be misunderstood.”. A little humility, just a little would go a LONG way for your credibility.

You often say you must not compromise scripture by apologizing for its language. Indeed. But you need not do that to apologize for some of your own first drafts at times. It’s not the same thing. Some of us really want to think the best of you Doug, (you do after all, live just down the street) but you make it hard sometimes. So there you go. Keep up the good work. And when it’s not the best work ever, then please stop insisting your diverse audience overcome the communication breakdown by simply reading your mind. Thanks.

 

I’ve had several offline folks ask to read my Ethiopia Journal posts, but there wasn’t a good link to give them that had them all in one place. WordPress’s search results page doesn’t really do the trick, so I am just going link to all of them here in this post, in chronological order.

These were all written during my trip to Ethiopia to visit my adopted daughter (our fourth child, second adoption) in October of 2011.

 

After discussing this particular topic with my wife, I came up with a few more things to add.

Because 100% polish is the norm, for one to be considered “honest” online now does not require much honesty. You don’t have to air all your dirty laundry and balance the good equally with the bad. Just a little bit of bad, a little bit of failure admissions, sprinkled here and there, is enough to season the entire life. On reflection, it seems that all of my favorite authors and bloggers do this. It seems to me that negative news is much more potent. Very much of it and you become just a downer and a whiner. (For reference, see cable news.) A little bit of it though is required to flesh out the persona. A sparkling person is cold and unapproachable. A blemished one can be warm and relatable, while still being very interesting and in fact, excellent.

Another question that is bound to come up when discussing the “sanitized” persona we make for ourselves online is “Well, haven’t people always done this since the beginning of society – put a fake best face forward?” Isn’t that what manners are? Isn’t that what makeup is for? Only the most socially inept and the insane cannot hide their flaws in public to SOME degree. We all actively do so all the time. How is doing it online any different? What is the point of even drawing attention to it?

(Before and after makeup photo.)

Certainly. When you are on a date with a young woman, you don’t bring up the colonoscopy you had to have last week. (Actually overheard this once in a restaurant.) When in a job interview, you don’t talk about how your current manager is such a dork. When you are at church and someone asks what you did this weekend, you might mention the responsible things such as mowing the lawn or taking your son to a baseball game. You leave out the part where you vegged in front of the TV for the better part of the day. Isn’t this the same sort of artifice we construct online with the carefully chosen words on our blog’s “About” page? Yes and yes.

So who cares? I think what is different about our sanitized online profiles is the lack of all the nuances you pick up from knowing someone in close proximity to you. The digital filter is much more thorough and powerful than what we can provide ad hoc, on the spot in our day-to-day interaction.

Consider the man with a bad temper. He may be able to control it most of the time, but if you are around him every week for years on end, sooner or later it’s going to come out. He is going to make a big stink about something and look terrible, at least for a while. You won’t quickly forget. Online though, he can scream and rant, then sit down and write a peaceable email back to his debate opponent or cantankerous mother-in-law. Nobody knows of his outburst except those within earshot.

Consider the overweight woman. People look down on her as lacking self-control, even if it’s entirely a case of unlucky genetics. She may be godly, kind, and extremely intelligent – perhaps even a world-class expert on some topic. In person, she has an uphill battle to be taken seriously by her audience. Online though, she has picked a nice head-shot for her profile and her clever writing speaks for itself. Everyone that knows her in person can’t help but be aware of her size. Online, it’s almost completely hidden. It’s worth noting that an unusually short man faces many of the same troubles as a fat woman.

Hang out at the bar every other night? All your neighbors know it. Online? Unless you “check-in” at the watering hole with your phone, nobody has any idea. Live in a 4000 sqft. McMansion? Post lots of pics! Live in a trailer park? Don’t! People won’t miss what they never saw in the first place. Just saw a pricey show on Broadway? Tweet all about it! Just got passed over for a promotion at work? Skip it. Your offline friends will ask you why you look sad. Your twitter followers won’t. The ability to draw attention to particulars in your life or sweep them under the rug is GREATLY enhanced when you can choose to be known via a sculpted web page.

At this point, I’m not even going to try and make a case that this phenomenon is a good or bad thing per se. I think it is worth drawing attention to the fact that it exists though. Why? Because it can help you keep envy in check. You can practically assume, 99% of the time, that when you see someone online who seems to have it all put together – they don’t. In fact, their life could be a complete disaster. Don’t waste your time being jealous of their European vacation. Their teenage son could be in rehab, their husband cheating on them, and their sister in the hospital with cancer. You might never know because all their Twitter feed has in it are some nice pics of Italy.

Wow, that guy writes so much better than me. He’s so much smarter than I’ll ever be. Why do I even have a freakin’ lit blog anyway? What’s the point? Despair! Really though – this sort of thinking is terribly destructive. You have to separate the person from the object. You need to separate the rock star from the music. One thing that can help is when the person you are observing is drawn back to earth when their failures are made known. Kudos to those humble enough to make them known. For those who don’t – realize they are there all the same, just invisible. God loves them. God loves you. You are not told anyone’s story but your own (says C.S Lewis). Be careful listening to other people’s stories online. They may be so covered in makeup as to be from another planet and utterly irrelevant.

Photo credit

The forward-face you put forth on Facebook is highly customizable. An acquaintance of mine is recently divorced. Their Facebook profile has been cleansed of any mention of their ex of many years, including the “defriending” of aunts, uncles, and all extended family of the remaining children. “This is who I am. Nothing has a hold on me.”, they seem to say with it. Except of course these things very much have a hold on their identity. The spouse still has joint custody. They don’t live very far away. They’ve left church to avoid confrontation regarding the divorce. Their (presently) lucrative career appears to be the anchor of their life. Their online persona has been cleansed of roots and history. Only the beautiful tree-top is seen, above ground, with the camera angled up at the sky. But of course they must be hurting and afraid and stressed out. Some remaining close friends know the depth of this I’m sure. But nobody at an online distance does – nor could they even guess if they were a new lurking acquaintance. If you interact with this person online, how much of it is the “real” them? If you knew them from earlier, then the interaction is naturally more substantial – an extension of your previous years along-side them. But for a new friend? They would be starting with considerably little indeed and that very cherry-picked.

I’m not pointing fingers. My own online persona is similarly cleansed. That is how they are set up to function from the get-go! Unless someone wanted to draw attention to their victim-hood (which is popular to do with certain topics), it is standard practice to sweep our failures under the rug. Social sites on the internet serve as effective gatekeepers to make sure those blemishes STAY under the rug and we can more easily believe the story we tell about ourselves. Offline though, amongst people in close proximity at church or work or on the same street, all sorts of uncontrolled nuance is revealed. THIS is the person who must be loved and forgiven, by God and by others. The cleaned-up avatar is a handy but limited substitute.

Update: Much more on this here.

Alastair posted some good thoughts on social media over here yesterday. I copy a few of them here with my comments just for my own consolidated note-keeping.

One of the things that I have noticed about online media over the years is that they tend to be better at facilitating certain forms of interactions over others. In particular, the Internet can be very good at enabling direct and immediate relationships, bringing two parties into an interaction uninterrupted, troubled by, or directed by any third party. What the Internet tends to be less effective at is the establishment of strongly mediated relationships, within which two parties relate to each other through the visible mediation of a third party or pole. At this point it should be stated that there is always a third party or pole of some sort. However, the Internet tends to weaken this third pole, rendering it invisible, exchangeable, or marginal.

Let me clarify what I mean by a ‘third pole’. A third pole can be an individual, a community, a subject of conversation, an institution, a context, an activity, an identity, a relationship, an attachment, an object of desire or worship, a cause, a symbolic or legal order, a narrative, or anything else of such a kind that mediates the relationship between two parties.

With a weakened third pole, it is difficult truly to belong to another person. Even the examples given above are of fairly weak forms of third poles. When all identities, communities, forms of belonging, and modes of interaction are largely chosen in character, the third pole is reduced to a mere shadow of its regular functioning in human societies and relationships tend to be characterized by a greater susceptibility to the instability of dual polarity.

When one does not belong to a social third, one’s relationship with other parties is not mediated by such things as reputation, and the presence of the other is not mediated to you by their place within a community and by the objective presence of a body and a face. In such a context it is easy to treat the other in a deeply impersonal, cruel, and rude manner.

On the other hand, for some people the absence of such mediation leads to an exaggerated intimacy. People will reveal things about themselves online that they would never reveal in person and can form far more immediate and intense connections with other persons.

This idea about the weakened “third pole” is very good and gets to what seems to me to be the bulk of the underlying mechanism behind so much of what is often discussed regarding our online interactions. If only there were more talk like this and less surface level essays on how “Twitter rots your brain” and whatnot.

One thing that has struck me over the years is the degree to which the Internet and social media can encourage a quest for ersatz communities, communities that overcome the ‘resistance’ characteristic of actual bodily communities. These communities are communities of extreme emotional connection and intimacy, of complete ideological alignment, where locality is a matter of indifference, and where we don’t have to experience the discomforting mutuality of presence with people who are radically different from us.

It seems to me that the ‘resistance’ of offline communities and bodies is much of the point. The limitations and givenness of the body encourage a focus and attentiveness upon this particular time and place and these particular people.

Without such ‘resistance’ our sense of connection can be enhanced, but what is really achieved may be little more than a shared narcissism, relationships that are seemingly intimate, but which are not truly transformative. It is in the inescapable friction of the body and of offline community that we are more likely to be changed and enriched as persons. For many, the facilitation of frictionless relating online has produced a dissatisfaction with offline communities and relationships and a closing off of the self to the demands and the friction that come with genuine otherness. Frictionless relating is confounded with genuine fellowship.

This is where the rubber meets the road. The “resistance” offered by offline groups is without question been a large part of what has driven both my wife and I to invest in online communities. For her, it has been the support and understanding of other mothers with disabled children and those who practice unstructured homeschooling. For me, it has been to find people who share my particular flavor of theological and reading interests. Very little of this could be found in our church, workplace, extended family, or neighborhood. I guess if I lived in an age without books I might not even be aware that these other things even exists.

Online though, these friendships are discovered and they are frequently delightful and enriching. At least, they often seem that way, to the exclusion of what? Trying to make conversation to the guy in the next pew who hasn’t read a book in ten years? Trying to relate to the public-school mom on the park bench in-between chasing her kids and step-kids to soccer games? Those interactions are difficult. It’s easier to open a book or my feed reader. How much is the Holy Spirit compelling me to “push through” this sort of resistance? How light is the burden that allows me to relax and think about my wife and kids and a few close friends and not give a rip about they weird guy who lives across the street? Evangelical preaching sends a LOT of mixed messages in trying to answer these questions. We need better answers. In some sense, online interactions seem to exaggerate the differences and make these things easier to discuss! That’s handy.

Lest it be thought that I am arguing against the value of online relationships and social media, I should make clear that I greatly appreciate the new possibilities opened up by them, and have benefited immensely from them. I have been a participant in online fora for almost a decade and a half, blogged for nearly ten years, and have used Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, Google+, and a host of other such sites. I send over fifty e-mails on the average day and follow dozens of RSS feeds.

I have formed quite literally hundreds of friendships and acquaintances online, and many of these friendships have become very important to me. Some have lasted for over a decade. I have met over thirty online friends in person on dozens of occasions. I plan to meet several more this summer alone.

However, despite my appreciation for online media, I have become aware of some of its limitations, unhealthy tendencies, and dangers, and have become more self-conscious and critical in my use of it. I have become more cautious when considering the value of new social media.

I can add that my own experience online is very similar to what he had described. I think a big trap to watch out for when discussing technology, especially popular things like social media, is to sound too much like an out-of-touch fuddy duddy from the past. I suspect that if anyone were to give a book-length treatment of this topic, a bit of praise and personal history regarding technology would need to be reiterated every single chapter lest the author be branded a naysayer and ignored by half the audience.

So many people have heard technology bemoaned from the pulpit while enjoying it throughout the week. They are quick to roll their eyes and stop thinking critically about it. Growing up, if I had a dollar for every article I saw in Christian publications about how “TV rots your brain”, I’d be filthy rich. Even in very hip contemporary churches like Mars Hill, where the pastor answers Tweets live from the platform, participation in online gaming or chat rooms is utter anathema. Responses to this technology are all over the board. I suspect we have not thought through them very deeply in many cases.

 

By blogging has been a bit befuddled as of late. I don’t know if I’ll be able to develop much off of this material right now, but I’m going to post it just to keep the motor running.

In the opening to A Theater of Envy, Girard states part of his theory in a much less complicated (and much better) way than he is accustomed to.

Like mimetic desire, envy subordinates a desired someTHING to the someONE who enjoys a privileged relationship with it. Envy covets the superior BEING that neither the someone nor something alone, but the conjunction of the two, seems to possess. Envy involuntary testifies to a lack of BEING that puts the envious to shame, especially since the enthronement of metaphysical pride during the Renaissance. That is why envy is the hardest sin to acknowledge.

-Rene Girard, A Theater of Envy, p.4 (emphasis mine)

We think that we desire THINGS, but in fact we are always desiring an enhancement and enlargement of our BEING. We want to be like person X ourselves. Our relation to the thing possessed goes through that mediator. Adam didn’t take the forbidden fruit in Eden because he was a glutton in a land of fruit, but because he wished to be like God. This is in fact exactly the way in which he was tempted. People desire to be rock stars not out of deep objective love of creating and sharing music. The musicians on that level usually find the fame and the road repulsive or terribly distracting at best.

We so often hear that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and it is true to say that beauty is, in some sense, relative to the observer. But it is only partially located there. It also lies in a third party. This could be mass media telling us what to regard as beautiful via TV and magazines. Or, actually much more importantly and powerfully, it could be your friends telling you what to regard as beautiful via what THEY uphold and who they are interested in. Does this mean that there is no “objective” or “absolute” beauty? Is everything just relative relational power playing off each other? No, of course not. What we call objective beauty, or true beauty, or natural beauty comes from our desire in relation to GOD, the creator, instead of from our neighbor. This is what Aquinas is talking about when he speaks of natural law. This is what Aristotle is saying when he explains that order is beautiful. Who’s order? The original creators order. To the degree it conforms with that of this preexisting will (clearly observable in the natural world), then it is beautiful by that standard. Since we are part of that world, this world, then we are always chiefly subject to this mediation, even though the mediation provided by our neighbor may feel more forceful at a given moment.

We often brag that no word can scandalize us anymore, but what about “envy”? Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant. We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation. If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?

-p.4

Because of the power of envy to guide our own desires, it is also the chief way by which we AFFIRM the choices we’ve already made. Shakespeare knew this. We have to do this to maintain the value of the thing we have poured our time, energy, and money into.

The proudest men want to possess the most desirable objects; they cannot be certain that they have done so, as long as empty flattery alone glorifies their choice; they need more tangible proof, the desire of other men, as numerous and prestigious as possible. They must recklessly expose their richest treasure to these desires.

If too securely possessed, eve the greatest and rarest possessions – wife, mistress, fortune, kingdom, superior knowledge, everything – lose their appeal. Like a gambler, anxious desire desperately attempts to rejuvenate itself.

-p.22