Strong Enough For Life

Having stayed up way past my bedtime taking my son to the Emergency Room–(he’s fine now; no need to worry)–I nevertheless got up early to help my wife sort out a rather hectic day.  I had a break in the afternoon, but worked on an independent project rather than taking the nap I wanted–we never get to sleep much at night anymore–because my independent projects are my best chance of getting paid.  Then I made (and largely burnt) dinner while trying to clean up from an unexpected collision of developments: one kid woke up unexpectedly, one needed food, groceries needed put away, and my independent project had created a bit of mess where we would soon need to eat.  After that we went to the only church service in the Christian year that I almost entirely hate.  Then I went out in the dark muddy cold to pick up garbage, because feral cats had knocked over our garbage cans again, and mingled garbage through the snow on our street that my local government refuses to plow.  As I did it, I knew that I would go back inside in time to wrangle my daughter, who would be franticly trying to avoid having to go to bed, during which time my son would begin his nightly routine of crying inexplicably for about an hour.

It was a pretty typical day, actually, if you substitute more general things for the unusual specifics, like the Hospital visit and Ash Wednesday.  I know that there are billions of people with days constantly worse; I’m not trying to compare my day to anyone’s to get pity.  I’m establishing the background for a single thought I had.

I was cold and had splashed putrid garbage in my own face, so I was grumpy.  My day wasn’t over either, because I knew my kids wouldn’t go to sleep easily, and then I still would actually have more work to do, like writing my blog which I’d neglected for however many days.  I mostly wanted to go out with my friends, though, who had gone out to a restaurant after church.  Or I wanted to play a game of some sort.  Or watch television.  Or read one of the books I’m half-way through.

I thought something like this, “I think after everything I’ve done today, I deserve….”  That was as far as I got.

Even if I were to do everything perfectly always, I would have done nothing more than what was required of me.  I wouldn’t earn a reward, I would meet the minimum standard.  And frankly, I don’t do much of anything perfectly.  For example, I’m not expressing this particularly clearly at all.

Today, a few times during the day, I did difficult things in an effort to serve others.  I stayed up late to take care of my son.  I woke up early to take care of my wife.  I stayed awake to work to take care of my family.  I went to church to be faithful to god.  I picked up soggy trash to take care of my wife again (and neighbors and creation, but mostly my wife).  I shepherded my daughter through her evening routine to take care of her.  I walked around trying to soothe my son to take care of him (and also my wife again).

All of those things are good things.  But if I look at my life, they’re the exceptions.  They’re the times when I break my usual habits of selfishness and carelessness, and remember that other people might need me.  By my count, that’s seven things up there.  Seven.  And I was exhausted by them and thought I had earned some time to be self-absorbed.

Seven.

I’m actually a bit staggered by that as I type it.  How out of shape my soul must be if so few attempts at righteousness exhaust me.  It’s like jogging.  If I were to try to jog right now, I might make it to the end of my block before I had to stop.  Apparently my soul is in worse shape than my somewhat jiggley-in-the-middle body.

In terms of righteousness, I’m out of shape.  (The technical term for this is “sinful.”)  But perfect righteousness is the minimum standard!  How far below that standard I am.  (It’s important to talk about Grace, offered to us through the sacrifice of Jesus.  I’m not belittling that at all.  But we are offered Grace so that we might grow into the image of Christ, who was righteous, not so that we might remain as unrighteous as currently suits our fancy.)

Here let me pause to draw out a parallel.  It’s easy to get angry when people talk about righteousness.  It sounds so negative, like God telling me not to be happy.  It’s entirely the reverse.  Righteousness is happiness, or is at least a central part of it.  Right now I imagine jogging as a sort of silly-headed torture, but I also generally hate physical activity because I hate feeling tired and in pain.  Not surprisingly though, avoiding physical activity makes me out of shape, and being out of shape means I spend a lot more time being tired and in pain.  If I were to do the difficult thing–exercise–I would discover something strange on the other side: health.  I might avoid exercise because I just want to live my life, but my life is difficult because I’m unhealthy.  If I were to exercise, I could be healthy, and thus actually have more of the life I want.  (And, if rumors are true, I might even come to enjoy exercise in and of itself.)

Righteousness is like that.  Being unrighteous (“sinners,” to use that pesky technical language again) takes away from us the strength and capability to be all of the other things we want, like happy.  It separates us from God, who is the ultimate source of not only our happiness, but our life at all.  We may talk about wanting to live our own lives, but this literally makes no sense without righteousness.  It’s cutting off the branch on which we perch.

I’m out of time (and also very sleepy).  Either way, my point is something like this:  Lent, which started today, is one of the times of the year when we remember that we need to exercise our souls at least as much as we exercise our bodies.  We need to build up the strength to be righteous, because righteousness is life.  The Church has passed down to us a bunch of different ways to exercise our souls.  They are the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of faithful (and frequently brilliant) people.  Things like fasting, praying, going to church services even when we don’t like them, these aren’t things we do because God wants us to be unhappy.  They’re things we do because God does want us to be happy.  He wants us to be happier than we are currently strong enough to bear.

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Was Christianity Wrong About Slavery?

Wouldn’t it be nice to outlaw Winter?

Personally, I prefer Winter to Summer, but I know that a lot of people prefer otherwise, and even more are tired of Winter after the Winter we’ve been having.  Unfortunately, outlawing Winter makes little sense.  It’s a feature of the world; we can’t change it.

This is roughly the challenge faced by Christianity with regards to slavery in the ancient world.  It made no sense to talk about abolition; slavery was a feature of the world, perhaps an inevitable feature of it.  They could no more intelligibly talk about outlawing it than we can intelligibly talk about outlawing Winter, or gravity, or breathing.  (They could have talked about it, but they would simply have seemed like madmen.  Would you listen to someone on the street loudly protesting against gravity?)

But they could subvert it.  They could change the assumptions involved.  They could change the relationships involved.  This they did.  In the Bible already we have talk of slaves having human value, of being equals and brothers.  The basic Christian beliefs, applied to slavery, undermine it.  People complain that the Bible doesn’t more clearly say that slavery should be outlawed, but at the time that would have been gibberish.

They said what they could though, and an interesting thing happened.  Because Christians had changed the discussion, because they had subverted slavery by changing the assumptions involved, slavery increasingly became something it made sense to challenge.  It stopped seeming like an inevitable feature of any society, and became something that society could and should abandon.

Within a few hundred years, slavery went from a fact of life to a moral evil.  Christians were the ones who effected that change, and then they opposed that moral evil until slavery in the Christian world was nearly eradicated.  It was a long and hard process, and not a perfect one, but from the beginning Christianity was on one side of the process, and the world was on the other.  Christianity wasn’t wrong about slavery, the Church wasn’t wrong about slavery, the world just dragged its feet.

Then another interesting thing happened, although this time it’s “interesting” in a tragic way.  As the world limped toward the modern period and an increasing number of people abandoned even a token affiliation with Christianity, slavery returned.  It had continued in non-Christian parts of the world the whole time, and without having Christian commitments to stop it, some folk even in the Christian world began to embrace it again.

They decided to reverse the process; they changed the assumptions in the discussion again.  It became a matter of economics, or practicality, of expedience.  Certain people were declared to be less valuable, less important, less worthy of respect.  Eventually, entire races of humanity were declared to be less than human.

Now among these folks and in the culture that followed, there were certainly many people who used the Bible as a defense.  When one wants to do something one knows is wrong, one tries to justify oneself.  If one’s primary authority is religious, one tries to justify oneself religiously.  Christians twisted scripture to defend the worldly evil in which they wanted to engage.  That happened, and it was rampant.  Slavery spread, and large numbers Christians participated, frequently with enthusiasm.

They participated though not because they were Christian, but because they were worldly.  Their beliefs only supported them to the extent that it they had been twisted and perverted from the Christianity that had been handed down to them.  That is to say, their religion supported slavery only to the extent that it stopped being faithful Christianity.

Of course, thankfully that isn’t the end of the story.  A group arose to challenge slavery again, to oppose it again as an evil worthy of eradication.  That group shouldn’t surprise anyone:  Christians.  Those Christians who were faithful to the Bible and the Church again recognized slavery as a moral evil, and again opposed it.  It was a long and hard process, and again not a perfect one, but it was again Christianity against the world.

So was the Church wrong about slavery?  Was Christianity wrong about slavery?  No.  Christians were wrong yes, but only because for a while in history they were very worldly about the subject.  Christianity and the Church opposed those Christians too, precisely because they were worldly.  The world was wrong about slavery, and when Christians became complicit, they were wrong too.

What does all this mean?  Well, it’s pretty common nowadays to hear people argue something like this:  “Christianity was wrong about slavery, and only slowly recognized that slavery was wrong, so maybe Christianity is wrong about [whatever] too.”  This shows a complete misunderstanding of history though.

Usually it shows an ignorance of history; the people who say it don’t look further back than a few hundred years.  They see Christians a few hundred years ago using the Bible to defend slavery and they assume that Christianity was in favor of slavery for the entirety of its history up through a few hundred years ago.  Then they assume that opposition to slavery was something that developed recently in history as new progressive understandings influenced stale archaic doctrine.

They only see the end of the story, and so completely misunderstand it.  Opposition to slavery in recent centuries was actually the triumph of ancient doctrine over the “new progressive understandings” which Christians had fallen into.

In fact, the Christians who were wrong about slavery were the one’s who submitted to the world and learned from it, not the ones who refused to learn such wisdom as the world offered.  They were wrong because they twisted the Bible to justify what the world wanted, rather than resisting the world when the world wanted evil.

So if you want to learn from history, if you want to look at the Christian relationship to slavery and use that as guidance in how to interact with the many social issues of the world today, here is the lesson:  the world will want evil, and it will be very persuasive in justifying it, so that even Christians will be tempted to it.  They will be tempted to twist and contort their beliefs to justify what Christianity has always opposed.

This isn’t development or growth though, it’s error.

Calvinism is Evil

Calvinism is evil.

It is of course possible to be a Calvinist and a Christian, because it’s always possible to be a Christian who’s wrong, but it’s impossible to embrace Calvinism without abandoning Christ.  If you consistently and deliberately choose to believe what Calvinism teaches, you will leave Christ behind in favor of the darker, smaller, weaker, pettier God that Calvin helped invent.  Perhaps you will even think this is a good thing.  After all, if you blaspheme Christ enough, you probably stop wanting him around.

For a while I worked in a Calvinist school.  There were any number of problems with the arrangement–my own complete lack of teaching experience being among them–but it was also the scene of one of my worst moral failures.  There was a moment that required courage, but I didn’t seize it.  I didn’t want to lose my job.  In that moment I participated in a culture of sin and lies.  I let someone suffer with a twisted and empty hope.  I didn’t talk about a better, a truer hope.  Because I didn’t want to lose my job.  (Hopefully that makes me sounds as pathetic and selfish as I was.  If not, it’s safe to assume that I was more pathetic and selfish than I sound.)

I can’t provide much in the way of backstory, because the story isn’t mine to tell, but let this suffice.  There was a charming and intelligent student.  Something terrible happened to him and his family.  It was the sort of sickening nightmare that’s far too common in the world, but also easy to ignore unless it happens where we have to see it.  Then the school united around that family to praise God for causing that nightmare, to thank God for the suffering he had deliberately inflicted, and to glorifying God for doing evil, which supposedly revealed his goodness.

Just to be clear, if you think God causes evil, you’re wrong.  (That would be like saying, “The heat made them cold.”)  If you want to follow a God who causes evil, you must abandon Christ, for in Christ there is no darkness.

And just to be clear, if you think certain obvious evils are not actually evil, you’re wrong.  (Which might be like saying, “I know you think this is cold, but actually you can’t possibly tell hot from cold at all.”)  If you want to follow a God who defines goodness and evil in some inscrutable way that we can’t be trusted to understand, you must abandon Christ, because he reminds us that we’ve always known good and evil, but we deliberately choose evil, whereas he shows us the good we were made for.

I’m highly dissatisfied with that last paragraph.  And also out of time.

Here is a critical bit.  It’s easy to wonder why, if God is good in a way we understand, he doesn’t prevent evils.  That is to say, even if he doesn’t cause them, he certainly seems to allow them.  (Here we are discounting entirely the argument that he is impotent against them.)  Calvinists will argue that it’s better to believe in a God who is Sovereign in causing evil than a God who allows evil for some reason.  But the Christian God anyway has something better than prevention in mind:  redemption.  Even horrible evils in the world will be redeemed–baptized in the blood of Christ’s sacrifice and transformed.

This is the better sort of praise.  Christians don’t praise God for causing evil, we praise God because evil doesn’t get the last word.  We praise him because in his hands, even evil can be transformed.  The devil strives, and often we strive with him, to hurt and destroy, to desecrate and tear asunder, to ruin and make worthless.  The devil, and we with him, even killed the Eternal Son.  We murdered the man who was the son of God.  It was the worst thing we could do, the most heinous thing we could do.

But in God’s hands….  Redemption.  Resurrection.  Hope.  Life.  Love.

That’s what Christian’s believe.  That’s the Christ we serve.  Not some monster who destroys us then orders us to thank him for the privilege.  We serve a God who pities us when we destroy ourselves, and who says to us in the sufferings we cause and warrant:  “Behold, I do a new thing.”  And in the light of his blessed morning our sufferings are redeemed into joy and glory, just as his own beloved Son’s were to make it possible.

 

Arguing

It’s a difficult business to argue as a Christian, not least because, when one argues with non-Christians, one is sometimes the only person attempting to fulfill a standard.

There are a few dozen ways I might already be misunderstood.  Most obviously, for those in general society, which is largely not interested in being rational, arguing usually means “shouting angrily at each other.”  Or at least in involves angry opposition.  By “arguing” I mean “rationally explaining, supporting, and discussing a conclusion.”  An “argument,” in this sense, is just an explanation of why one believes a thing.

Which brings me to the second possible misunderstanding. I’m not saying that it’s difficult to argue as a Christian because perhaps Christianity is irrational, or because perhaps we don’t have reasons for believing what we believe.  Christianity is actually rational, and Christians have reasons for believing what we believe. In fact it bothers me whenever people suggest that their religion is somehow separate from reason.  (e.g. “I don’t need reasons, I just believe it.”)

Nor is it the case that Christianity depends upon either particularly few arguments or particularly weak arguments.  In fact, the arguments for Christianity are significantly more numerous than those against it, and are at least as strong.

So what in the world do I mean?  I mean that arguing with a person has to be an expression of love for that person.  That is how one argues as a Christian.  We reason with people in such a way that our words and our bearing and our motives are Christ-like.  (Or, as necessary, when we are wrong we admit it so that we may become more Christ-like through correction.)  That’s a difficult business.

It isn’t made easier by people who seem intent on being obnoxious.  I should probably find that particularly “convicting,” to use the cliché Christian language, because I am precisely the sort of person who has spent most of my life trying to be obnoxious.  Or at least I was obnoxious, whether or not I tried.

There’s a certain failure made evident by expressing my frustration in a public forum.  I would delete it, but, you know, the rules.  (What a terrible and silly attempt at a sentence.  One should not try to type using colloquial spoken syntax.)

Either way, this is something with which I struggle: how do I best love those with whom I argue?  (Or debate, if that word is clearer.)

Also, let me say again in praise of William (if he is reading this), that he is a charming interlocutor.  I thanked him for his patience before, and have sadly given him significant chances to continue displaying it, but he has been nothing but gracious and thoughtful.

I am nearly out of time.  This seems an entirely trivial reflection, and I’m not sure why anyone is interested in it, but if you have made it this far and are thinking of leaving comments on my blog or writing to me or whatever, here is a bit of advice or a few requests:

1.) Being angry and inflammatory is most likely not going to help you make your point.  Also, it’s going to hurt my feelings and confuse me.  I won’t know how to respond to you and will worry about it.

2.) My wife will notice that I’m worried and she’ll tell me to delete your comment.  I’ll realize that she has a good point, because she’s awesome, and then your comment won’t be posted.  (Admittedly, this isn’t really a second item on the list.  Now I just have numbered paragraphs.)

3.) Be patient.  I will respond, but it will take a long time.  Partially this is because I’m busy.  The rest is that I’m taking your comment probably more seriously than you are, and am trying to treat you with respect.

4.)  In the background, my son is crying.  This means my time is cut short.