Wednesday, August 31, 2011

From Dating to Marriage, Interlude

Because every series I do seems to need a video post...





Did you listen to the first few lines of that song? Case in point.



My From Dating to Marriage series:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

From Dating to Marriage, Part 3: Sex Before Marriage

'glue' photo (c) 2007, lylamerle - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/A lot of the conversation during this series, From Dating to Marriage, has revolved around avoiding marriage to an ill-suited life partner.

In Part 1: Pre-Engagement Counseling, I addressed how vital pre-engagement counseling can be for some couples who are pursuing marriage. While premarital counseling is helpful, it sometimes makes the best of a bad situation rather than leading to the termination of an unhealthy relationship. The momentum of engagement can feel unstoppable.



In Part 2: Preparing for Marriage while Single, I gave a few suggestions for singles who are pursuing marriage. Two of those suggestions involved not entering a dating relationship with someone who is ill-suited for you. If you don't start dating someone who isn't marriage material, momentum will not lead you toward marrying them.

As you can tell in both of these conversations, I do not trust the natural momentum in romantic relationships. I think that our best judgment is often cast aside when it is most needed. And one of the factors I find most to blame for relational momentum is our sexuality. 

Most (but not all) of us have the urge to merge. There is nothing wrong with our desire for sex and intimacy. Our sexuality reveals our God-given design for community, sharing, and pleasure. This aspect of humanity is a beautiful thing that reflects the beauty of the Trinity, the beauty of Christ and His Church, and the beauty of creation.

Like all good things, our sexuality suffers from our brokenness, both personally and communally. Too often, sex is less about sharing and more about getting. Or sex can easily become an idol or drug; many of us use it as something that defines us, and others use it as something that numbs them to reality. 

But my argument for abstaining from sex before marriage is not because of how broken our sexuality is. While there are good reasons to abstain because of our sexual brokenness, I have always found them unhelpful to the abstinence conversation at large. Sure, some or most of us want to have sex for the wrong reasons, but arguments for abstinence based out of the negative aspects of sexuality are easy to dismiss by saying, "Well, I don't struggle with that issue, so then having sex is fine for me."

My argument for abstaining from sex before marriage is based on how amazing and powerful sex is, not how harmful sex is.

Both science and my experience confirm that God has designed sex to bond people. Sure, not all sexual encounters lead to deep bonding, but they should. God was the original Pavlov. Chemically, our bodies respond to touch, sex, and orgasm. The positive hormones that are released actually train our brains to be favorable toward the person we've shared a sexual experience with. 

Within marriage, this is brilliant. Life together causes strain on a marriage, but sex should create pleasure, and pleasure trains your brain to be favorable towards your partner: "Oh you, I like you. You're fun to be with." Not only are we training our brains to look favorably upon our sexual partners when we sleep with them, but we are releasing built-up stress. Living together, paying the bills, and raising the kids all create stress. Thank God for the release valve of sex.

BUT, outside of marriage, sex acts in the same way; we become bonded to one another and the stresses of the relationship are more easily overcome. And that is not ideal when discerning whether or not someone makes an ideal life partner. You should be bonding to the person, not to their body or to what they do for you sexually. And you need to develop better ways than sex to overcome conflict when dating. Those perks are great within marriage, but a marriage built upon sex as a problem solver is not healthy. 

When making the decision to marry, arguably the most important decision of your life, sex can cloud your judgment. Of course, any physical intimacy can cloud your judgment, which is why I believe any physical progression should be entered into cautiously. For many people, not being physically involved with your boyfriend/girlfriend might actually be the best choice, especially when the relationship is new. 

I know this might sound crazy to a lot of people. I really do get it. "Sex is such an important part of a relationships. How could you take that out and still know if you should marry someone?" I have a few answers to this. 

First, sex changes over time, so just because you have great sex with someone now doesn't mean you will forever. I've heard this is especially true for women after giving birth. Many couples have to relearn sex after birth because the woman's body is forever changed. 

Second, you can learn to have great sex with someone, so bad sex while dating might actually undermine a great relationship that could lead to an amazing marriage. Of the married couples I know, most would say that the sex they are having now is better than the sex they had when they were first married. 

Third, there are periods in many marriages when sex is not possible. If sex was a foundation of your decision to get married, these seasons will be rockier than they already are. Marriage should be built on something stronger, and sex should be a reinforcement and refresher.

It's given that all sexual relationships, marital and otherwise, are mixed together with sin and brokenness. I don't know a single person without sexual baggage. (They might exist, but they're as elusive as Big Foot in my life.) But even in the situation where two people are dating and simply want to have sex for purely selfless and loving motives, I still don't think it's a good idea. And if abstinence is a good idea for them, it's a good idea for those of us with some selfish sexual motives.

I don't think God advises us to remain sexually pure until marriage because He's a prude. I really think He does it to protect us. Obeying God in this area is valuable even if it doesn't make sense to you. But this was my attempt at explaining why I think God gets this one 100% right. 

I could write much more, but I'll refrain. I'd rather hear from you. What did I miss? What other conclusions can you draw? Do you have any personal experiences that contradict or support God's call to keep sex only within marriage?



From Dating to Marriage series:

Friday, August 26, 2011

From Dating to Marriage, Part 2: Preparing for Marriage while Single

'Bouquet toss' photo (c) 2008, John Mayer - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/From Dating to Marriage, Part 1: Pre-Engagement Counseling


To continue our conversation about dating and marriage, I'd like to take things a step further by saying that even single people can begin preparing for marriage. What's the best way to do that? I'm sure there are lots of great ways, but these come to mind first:


1) Accept the fact that you are single because God loves you, not because God is holding out on you. Don't try to explain away your singleness with shallow, conciliatory cliches. He has you where He wants you, and that is to be single. Paige Benton Brown says it much better in this article:

"I am not single because I am too spiritually unstable to possibly deserve a husband, nor because I am too spiritually mature to possibly need one. I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me. It is a cosmic impossibility that anything could be better for me right now than being single. The psalmists confirm that I should not want, I shall not want, because no good thing will God withhold from me."

Seriously, read all of her article Singled Out by God for Good, and maybe even print out the .pdf version to share with your small group. Even as a married woman living in the land of Want in regard to having children, that article speaks truth I need to hear.


2) Replace the lies we have all learned from the broken marriages around us with a redeemed vision of marriage. How do you do this when no one has a perfect marriage? Reading the Bible, listening to sound biblical teaching, and spending time with emotionally healthy couples will go a long way. 

My vision of marriage was crafted most by The Marriage Series by Tim Keller. While the series is incredibly helpful for married couples, I think it might actually have more value for singles (and dating couples) who are learning about the vision and purpose of marriage. Tim and Kathy Keller are also releasing a book on marriage this Fall, which I expect will be very similar to the sermon series. I disagree with them on some minor points (mostly about gender roles), but I don't have to agree with everything Tim and Kathy say to admit that they have a good grasp on why God created marriage.

In short, you can't get married for the right reasons unless you know what the right reasons are. 


3) Don't date losers. If you don't date losers, you won't marry a loser, and that will save you (and those who love you) decades of heartache. 

Now, to clarify, losers is a very harsh word. I recognize that, but the point holds. I am NOT advocating that you wait for the perfect man/woman before you start dating. No one will be perfect, so while you shouldn't date losers, you will always date sinners. There is a big difference. What is the difference in my mind? 

Sinners admit that they aren't perfect and need help. Sinners make mistakes, but they also try to learn from them. Sinners want to serve before being served, even if they have selfish moments. Sinners might be hurtful but they aren't abusive. Losers, on the other hand, are selfish, abusive, or lazy. 

I'm sure there are other ways to indicate that someone is a loser, but the basic principal applies: If you don't date someone, the momentum will never carry you toward marrying them. 


4) Don't date someone who is not a good partner for you. There might be someone who is a great person, but that doesn't make them a great life partner for you. Marriage is, in my opinion, more about partnership than about romance. So even if you have great chemistry and your parents like him or her, that doesn't mean that you should be partners for life. 

To clarify, I am NOT advocating that you make a list and refuse to date anyone who doesn't meet your standards. I'm not a big believer in lists for spouses unless the list is very short. I would have put a lot of dumb things down on my list that might have disqualified my husband. I'm so glad God knew what I needed. A vague list of sorts might work, but I would suggest following only the spirit of your created law, not the letter of it.

But, what I am advocating is that you find someone who is on the same journey as you, someone who has the same values and vision for life. Most differences can be overcome or even humorous. But differences that send you in two different directions are not easy to overcome. And again, just as with point 3, if you don't start dating someone who would make a poor life partner, you won't find yourself hurling toward marriage.



Now, I know there are a lot of singles out there trying to be content and to not think about marriage. For some of you, marriage might even be an idol that you have had to submit to God. In either of these cases, ask a trusted friend for help as you try to navigate the waters of singleness and dating with clarity and purpose. I don't mean this blog to be yet another thing that makes it difficult to be content. I hope these are helpful tips rather than hurtful to where you are in your journey.


From Dating to Marriage series:
Part 1: Pre-Engagement Counseling
Part 3: Sex Before Marriage
Interlude: Music Video!
Part 4: Oh, Dating...
Part 5: Date Nights

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

From Dating to Marriage, Part 1: Pre-Engagement Counseling

'Last Train.' photo (c) 2011, Natalie - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/I'm going to begin a short series on dating and marriage. I'm not doing so because I have it all figured out. Really, I don't. But as I attended a beautiful wedding this past weekend, I realized that I am starting to forget what dating and engagement were like. As we sat around at the bachelorette party, it struck me that the newlywed women actually had great advice for the bride, probably because their first year was fresh in their minds and hearts, whereas my experience has receded a bit into the background. 

I know that we have a formula for determining if we want to take marriage advice from someone and that one part of that formula is the length or their marriage. But to be honest, some of the best guidance I've received about dating, engagement, and marriage has been from couples who are only a step or two ahead of me. 

For instance, I do need a vision for what marriage will be like when Josh and I are empty nesters. But as we try to have children, what we need more is the vision and some advice for navigating the transition from being a couple to being parents as well as a couple. As our friends who have small children have just walked through that path, they can show us the way very naturally. 

So before I forget what the transition from single woman to married woman was like, I'm going to share some thoughts. I would love your feedback, as always. 

And now I begin with Part 1, a discussion of the role of counseling before marriage. 
_________

In the Christian world (and beyond) premarital counseling has become expected of most engaged couples. And that is fabulous, a great improvement over "they'll figure it out." But for some couples, seeking counseling once they're already engaged might be too late. So I'm here to advocate for a new normal: Pre-engagement counseling. 

I know what you're probably thinking: Pre-engagement counseling is jumping the gun. But to clarify, I'm not talking about counseling for the couple who is casually dating or newly dating. I'm advocating counseling for any couple who is considering engagement and marriage. 

If both partners are on the same page in terms of commitment, they can usually sense that a decision to marry (or not) is coming. Even better, they talk about it openly and honestly. But in the midst of talking about marriage, the excitement can cloud sober judgment, making counseling before engagement wise. 

Other couples might be discordant in regard to their commitment and desire for the relationship. If one of the partners desires marriage but the other one is not so sure, pre-engagement counseling is a brilliant idea. Waiting until after a proposal to address the lack of commitment of one person is extremely trying.

So why isn't premarital counseling during engagement enough? 

As today's Her.meneutics article points out, some people get married with unresolved doubts for a number of reasons. But I think Sharon Hodde Miller states a primary reason very well here: I "underestimated the momentum of planning a wedding. Once you begin the process of planning it’s like you get on board a giant locomotive and there’s no way to stop it. Had I realized that Ike was not the man for me, I cannot imagine the pain and hardship of canceling the wedding, or even just delaying it. Aside from the financial loss, it would be humiliating and emotionally devastating. In the short-term, it would seem much easier to just go through with it."

And she is spot on. Once that train picks up some steam, not just in terms of planning a wedding but in terms of two lives being joined as one, it becomes quite difficult to pull the emergency brake. When a wedding gets planned, families become friends, bank accounts are joined, and homes are bought or leases signed, it is hard to stop the process.

So for all of you couples out there who are dating and wondering what the next step is, I hope you will consider couples' counseling before anyone gets down on one knee. It might not be absolutely necessary, but it is prudent.


From Dating to Marriage series:

Monday, August 22, 2011

Are Christians Called to Culture War?

'P1100971' photo (c) 2010, Charlotte Cooper - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Two years ago I wrote a few posts in which I engaged with Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. I never addressed one of the undercurrents of the book, but today I'm going to do so because it popped up again in a recent blog post about male and female roles, Taking Dominion. Taking Dominion is on the blog of Justin Taylor, but it is a guest post by Robert Sagers and is an interview of Mark Chanski.

What's the undercurrent Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Taking Dominion have in common? Christians are to be counter cultural.

In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Duncan and Stinson say, "The church has been called to counter and bless the culture" (xi). In Taking Dominion, Chanski said, "[The church should be] unapologetically countercultural in our teaching of the Scriptures." Both of these quotes are justifying a heated opposition to feminism, something that I find bewildering. Sure, feminists are wrong about some things. But feminists are also right about a lot of things. So why do we throw the baby out with the bath water? Because we are gridlocked in a stubborn culture war.

Above and beyond the feminism debate, I want to address the issue of being "called" to be counter cultural. Opposing “the culture of the day” is often something I have heard we should do as Christians. So, let’s examine what that means.

First, a few things don't sit well with me:

1) Both of the above quotes seem to indicate a lack of understanding regarding the fact that we live among dozens of cultures as Americans. Shall we simultaneously be counter cultural to each separate culture? That’s quite difficult since they are often opposed to one another.

2) It is implied that Christians should be counter cultural regardless of what values are upheld by the culture. But acting in that way only encourages pride, stunts the growth of the Church, and ignores the Spirit of God at work among all peoples. In fact, the Church can learn a lot from nonChristians, and if nonChristians agree en masse about something, that's called culture. And sometimes nonChristian culture is right. Many cultures without the influence of the Church, for instance, are right about the importance of respect for their elders. Other cultures are right about personal liberty in the face of oppression. So to be blindly counter cultural ignores the image of God emblazoned on each and every culture. Somewhere in each culture, He's there. We must learn to recognize those aspects, learn from them, and use them as inroads for the Gospel.

3) Perhaps more embedded in the counter cultural stance of the Church is the message that you nonChristians, not us Christians, are full of worldly culture. A false dichotomy is established: You need redeeming while we are agents of redemption. The implication is that either a) the Church is cultureless or b) the Church has its own holy culture, and c) the Church is susceptible to the disease of contemporary culture and must always fight it.

And that is a major problem.

A) It is not true that the Church is cultureless. Culture is everywhere, even in God’s established Church. When tutoring some middle school students years ago, they asked me to define the word culture. The best thing I could come up with on the spot was the explanation that culture is those things in your life that seem normal to your family or friends but abnormal to other people. That definitely isn’t the most sophisticated definition of culture, but I think it is helpful. The Church is full of behaviors and values that are abnormal to people outside (and often inside) our community. To say that any group of human beings can be cultureless is to be ignorant of what culture is.

B) In addition, it is impossible for the Church to be culturally holy. My argument for this is not theological as much as it is practical. The global Church is multicultural, and many of the cultures among our own brothers and sisters are contradictory to one another. Cultures within the American church alone oppose one another. On a global scale, the differences among cultures of the Church are overwhelming. So which one is right? American middle-class Southern Baptist culture? New England upper-class Presbyterian (PCA) culture? Kenyan poverty-escaping Pentecostal culture? Chinese house-church culture? They certainly don’t all agree.

C) I wholeheartedly agree that the Church is susceptible to the influence of worldly culture. But I disagree just as wholeheartedly that worldly culture is “out there” and is advancing into the Church unless we fight it. Because neither A nor B is true, it holds that the Church is culturally imperfect just as the world is. So the problem with our view of the disease of culture is not that it exists, but where it exists. The Church should be made up of people who point to themselves and say, "Me. It's me. I am the problem with the world." When Christians, as His representatives on Earth, fail to recognize the sin in our own hearts, even the cultural sin, we mar His image and bring ill repute to His name. Yes, there is sin in the world that we should fight. But we must always look to find the sin in ourselves first. When pastors, authors, and teachers encourage us to counter contemporary culture without regard for the broken cultures within the Church, we look like a bunch of finger-pointing hypocrites.

 I agree completely that the Church should be outside of culture, and even counter to it at times. But being counter cultural should not be the aim of Christians and Christian teaching. We should be advancing God’s redemption first into our own hearts and then into the heart of each and every culture on the globe. But God’s redemption certainly doesn’t look like the exact opposite of whatever culture you are in. To be blindly counter cultural regardless of the context is to make an idol of culture by shaping the Gospel around it instead of shaping our cultures around the Gospel.

Instead of simply being countercultural, let’s counter the fallen and broken aspects of all cultures, even Church cultures. But while we do so, let’s honor and build upon the redemptive glimpses of God that we find.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Fresh Start

'A Galactic Spectacle: A pair of colliding galaxies about 62 million light years from Earth.' photo (c) 2011, Smithsonian Institution - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/
My dad’s name is one of the most generic names in the English language: John Rogers. His namesake was his grandfather, my great-grandfather. There’s a chance that the original John Rogers made up his name.

He showed up as a young man in Canada about 100 years ago, with very few details about his life and no ties to family or friends. He was a stranger in a strange land. There have been some guesses as to the mystery surrounding him. Perhaps he was a criminal, or perhaps he was an orphan. But whatever his background, we know that when he immigrated to Canada he got a fresh start.

There’s something about fresh starts that captures our collective imagination.

Americans tend to romanticize our country’s birth, thinking that everyone who settled here did so for a fresh start. (In truth, many people settled here less for a fresh start and more for greed.) Josh and I are big fans of the sci-fi TV shows Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. Say what you will about sci-fi, but good sci-fi tells amazing stories about fresh starts. New planets, new galaxies, newness all around.

I grew up in Small Town, Georgia. I had an amazing childhood there. Really, I did. My husband has learned in his studies (to earn his PsyD) that the age of 10 is a pivotal age in determining lifetime happiness. The happier a child is at 10, the better the prognosis for lifetime satisfaction. At 10, I was amazingly happy: catching frogs, playing softball, making up random games with my friends next door.

But then I hit 12 and things got rocky. I liked boys a lot. And I made some poor decisions. By the time I was 16 I liked even older boys and made more poor decisions.

To make a really long story (involving lies, a middle-of-the-night search for me, and a note placed in the wrong locker at school) short, by the time I was 16, I was living in a small town with lots of people who knew about my mistakes. That sucked. At church, school, even at the grocery store, I felt like Hester Prynne. I now know that very few people actually viewed me that way, but the shame I felt was out of control.

At 16 my dad had a job offer in a different state. Is it any surprise I encouraged him to accept it so that we could move?

I wanted a fresh start.

In many ways, I got it. But, in many ways I never will in this life.

What have I learned about fresh starts? They never are quite what you want them to be, just as I am never quite who I want to be. Fresh starts are great ideas but awfully messy in reality. Beginning again is hard. Learning to walk, talk, ask for help: People don’t like to think about those aspects of starting again. Fresh starts are an exercise in humility. At least, they should be.

And I’ve come to terms with that, most days. It’s hard at times to swallow the reality of a bad reputation, but in those moments I’ve learned to turn to Jesus. He died so that I could have a fresh start. If I continue to heap shame on myself for my mistakes, it might seem noble but it is ultimately a prideful act. I am saying that my reputation and my opinion of myself are more important to me than God’s opinion of me.

And what is God’s opinion of me? To say that I am loved rings a little hollow. Perhaps it’s become too trite: God loves me. But you know what’s hard for me to really believe? When God looks at me He is pleased; I am pleasing to God. That is a hard pill to swallow because I simply don’t believe it.

But it’s true. Jesus gives me His perfect, spotless record, and because of that I am fully pleasing to God. He looks at me not with disappointment, but with the words, “This is my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased.” He speaks those words over me not because of what I do but because of what Christ has done. He gives me His life as my own.

Dare I reject his spotless life and try to snatch back my shame from Him because it is what I know?

My fresh start at 16 was one of many. But each year, each day, each hour, I can start again, and again, and again. And He never tires of my sin because it’s already paid for.

It’s already paid for. Past tense. Done. Finished. Why is it so hard for me to lay my shame to rest? Today, I admit that it’s hard to start again. It’s messy and uncomfortable. But I know that it is so, so worth it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Haves and the Have Nots

'Toby Fence' photo (c) 2011, Chris - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
My husband, Josh, is supremely gifted at rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep (Rom 12:15). If you share good news with him, he usually thinks little of himself and shares your joy freely.

When we started trying to get pregnant at the beginning of this year, however, his gifting in this area was challenged for the first time. After an unsuccessful month of trying to conceive he went to work as usual. Coincidentally, a coworker showed up with news that his wife was pregnant, sonogram printout in hand. For the first time in a long time, Josh said he felt real tinges of jealousy and sadness at someone else’s joyful news. He shared his jealousy with a single friend of ours, and she mentioned that she feels the same thing every time she hears of a new couple who is dating or getting married. And she said, “If anything, now you’ll know what it’s like for a lot of us singles.”

For a lot of us, this is a common occurrence. As Sex and the City says, "Sometimes there is nothing harder in life than being happy for somebody else" (The Baby Shower, S1E10).

Now that Josh and I are in a defined season of Have Not in regard to a child, I have to constantly check my attitude toward those who Have. Admittedly, most of this is due to my sin. I am selfish, discontent, and envious. But I know that this is a common sin, and one that is not helped by conversation-less interaction with hundreds of people via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. When they are unaware of what I’m going through, they don’t know that some of their words sting. It’s really hard for me to see a pregnancy announcement on Facebook right now. While I am often genuinely happy after a bit of time, the first thing I feel is sadness. Harder yet is to see updates from women who are due around the time I was due, to see where I would be in my pregnancy lived out by others.

So how do we combat the natural divisions that arise from our the-grass-is-always-greener perspectives?

If you are a Have Not:

Remind yourself that you do in fact have, and you have a lot. You might not have what you want, but you have everything you need, and probably more. In Christ, all of our ultimate needs are met. And I bet that God has blessed you in other ways, even though they feel normal now. For instance, you may be poor, but perhaps you have great parents. Cultivate gratitude.

Be wary of an unfulfilled desire quickly becoming an idol. Good things can become ultimate things in the blink of an eye. In the trying-to-conceive world, a positive home pregnancy test, the pregnant body, and birth are often idolized. Single women often silently idolize weddings, bachelorette parties, and wifedom. The poor often idolize retirement accounts and luxurious vacations. Be careful before your desire becomes your master.

Learn to counsel yourself out of anger, jealousy, or self-protection. It might be valuable to block some annoying Haves on Facebook, but that’s not a great long-term solution. It’s okay to experience longing, but that longing can either eat you alive or you can use it for good. If you can’t talk yourself through those hard moments, figure out where to turn, be it the Word, a trusted friend, or music.

If you are a Have:

Remind yourself that dreams fulfilled can also be idols. You might be married, pregnant, respected, or have lots of money, but those things should not be the main source of your peace and joy. If they are, repent and reorient.

Share both the joys and the hardships of your life. As a non-pregnant woman, if you are pregnant and only share the negatives, you communicate ingratitude for what you have. And yes, complaints that end in “but don’t get me wrong; it’s a blessing!” are still complaints. Likewise, if you only share the positives, you are hard to relate to. Your marriage, children, and life aren’t perfect. Don’t be afraid to share some of the challenges you face. It can actually be helpful as a reminder to the Have Nots that their dreams aren’t all peaches and cream. So, share both the ups and downs in moderation.

 Remember that you did not earn your blessings. They are gifts. If you receive a good gift, you are certainly going to thank the giver, perhaps even publically. That’s okay. But a sense of entitlement for your gifts is never okay. Waving the All-Clad cookware you got for your birthday in front of your friend who is getting by on Cup O’Noodles from the microwave is just plain rude.


For all of us, we should remember that the economy of the Kingdom of God is not based on having but upon giving. God gave it all so that we might have it all. And in this Kingdom, we’re all sinner-saints. We all must learn to die to ourselves, repent of our sin, and orient our lives around Someone else. And all of us, Haves and Have Nots, are beneficiaries of undeserved grace.

How have you navigated the waters of fulfilled and unfulfilled desires? Do you have any additional suggestions for Haves or Have Nots?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Virtue of Fooolishness



I just finished reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, the story of Paul Farmer, a doctor who set out to cure the world starting in Haiti. This book has been recommended to me repeatedly for about half a decade, so I figured it was time to read it. (Well, to be honest, swap.com decided it was time for me to read it because someone offered it in a trade.) 

The main thing I'm taking away from the book? Having a little bit of foolishness in your blood is a good thing. I mean come on... Haiti?!?

As you can probably tell from my recent posts, I've been thinking about my friends a lot this summer. My friends are the type of people who have crazy ideas... a lot of crazy ideas. When they see a problem, crazy as it is, my friends actually try to think of solutions. And they don't just sit around thinking of solutions; they make calls, write letters, produce documentaries, and start organizations to solve those problems. Their plans don't always pan out, but I appreciate that they’re trying to do something, anything, to proclaim freedom to the prisoners and give sight to the blind. They’re putting feet on the Gospel and it’s beautiful.

But according to both Christian and nonChristian wisdom of the day, my friends, Paul Farmer, and I have probably made a lot of poor choices. We've married while still in college or we've committed to celibacy while 30 and single. To the chagrin of our parents, we've chosen to live in and commit to “subpar” socioeconomic neighborhoods. We have moved overseas without job stability or a great support system. We give away 50% of our income or we've bucked stable incomes to keep “winging it” year to year. And we're trying to get pregnant while starting grad school. Ha. Haha. 

We're a bit foolish.

But sometimes I think foolishness is called for or even necessary. The Apostle Paul took news of the Jewish Messiah to Gentiles. Noah was mocked for building a boat in the middle of arid land. Jesus palled around with lepers. God asked man to join His mission. If you stop and think about these things, they don't make sense. Wisdom only gets you so far. Having the gumption to pull the trigger on crazy ideas gets you a bit further. And having a challenging yet comforting relationship with Jesus takes you even further. 

As a disclaimer, I don't want to romanticize our foolishness. Not all of us are traveling the world like Paul Farmer. Some of us are trying to just be faithful to our spouses, raise children who are not imbeciles, and be nice to the slowest employee at the Post Office. But we're not giving in to the notion that life has to happen to us. We are shaping the world one person, one town, and one country at a time. And it's a bit crazy to think that you can impact the world.  

Also, this is not in any way an anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, or anti-wisdom argument.  You can probably tell from my blog posts that I value thinking through decisions slowly, carefully, and logically. I value the wisdom of elders and the advice of my community. But sometimes I think we do ourselves a disservice by trying to plan and calculate every decision we make according to "fair" standards. Living accordingly to cost-benefit analyses is not inherently Godly. 

But those disclaimers aside: Do something a little bit crazy. And find other people who want to do slightly crazy things and join them. Sometimes it’s okay to drown out the wisdom of our elders and spend a bit too much money and waste a bit too much time. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Advice for the New Seminarian

'Cemetery Sunset' photo (c) 2006, Tim - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
Ever heard the joke saying that people who go to seminary might as well go straight to the cemetery? Well, I have. I'd love to not spiritually, emotionally, or maritally die while in seminary, so I'm asking for your help.

As I announced a month ago, I'm beginning my graduate studies at Azusa Pacific University this fall. I'm enrolled in the MA Theological Studies program, which is a 2-3 year program designed to train me in Bible scholarship. I chose this program as opposed to the MDiv program simply because I do not feel called into pastoring a congregation; I feel more clearly called into teaching, writing, and scholarship. I don't doubt that God can redirect me, but for now, Josh and I both feel confident that the MATS program is my next step. 

In a month, I'll be starting my coursework with Greek I, Seminar in Biblical Interpretation, and Christian Ethics. Once these prerequisites are completed, I'll be moving forward with the rest of the courses.

So, as I begin, I'm asking for advice from former or current seminarians, people who have taught seminarians, are married to seminarians, or have observed a seminarian either succeed or lose their marbles. I'm specifically curious about tackling Greek and Hebrew, trying to understand Scripture in a new way without killing the love I have for it, and how best to navigate socially with peers and professors. I've never attended a Christian school, so I'd love advice on transitioning from secular academia to seminary too.

I'm hopeful that seminary doesn't have to be the death of me, at least in the bad ways. So, I'd love your help. Throw any advice my way!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Being Friends when it's Hard

'friends serie culte' photo (c) 2008, Culture Culte - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
There's no question about it: Relationships are messy. Marriage is messy and parenting is messy, but I think friendships are especially messy. With friendships there is little structure, unspoken expectations, and minimum commitment. That's a hotbed for drama. But friendship can also be a breeding ground for Truth and Grace.

As mentioned at the end of Friends Old and New, I want to have an honest conversation about when to fight for a friendship and when to let some distance enter in. I do not have many answers, but I want to get the ball rolling with a few thoughts:

1) Respect and give weight to your friends with sacred history.

In Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas discusses respecting the "sacred history" you have with your spouse. Likewise, friends can have sacred histories, too. Not all friendships do, but if a friend walked with you through an especially joyful, sorrowful, or memorable time of life, you probably have some sacred history with that friend.

I talked to my childhood best friend, Lauren, for an hour today. Very few people, usually only siblings, understand what it was like for you to grow up where you did, when you did, with the family you did. But Lauren knows these things about me, and I about her, so our sacred history keeps us bonded as friends. She has probably been in every circle of intimacy possible at some point during my life, and that is okay. Despite our transitions in friendship, we share a commitment to one another because of this sacred history.

2) Committing to a friend despite frustration or geographical distance is character-building and fragrant of the Kingdom.

God-honoring friendships don't come naturally to most of us, but sin does.
Just like in marriage and parenting, intimacy in friendship is built upon commitment. You don't have to vow to your friend that you'll be available to her forever, but you can speak commitment through your actions: show up at her Mary Kay party; answer her call when you want to screen it; give her permission to speak into your life. In friendship it's often easy to cut bait and find new seas to fish in. It takes patience, persistence, and selflessness to keep some friendships healthy.

If most of your friendships are falling apart or rife with tension, perhaps it's time to look in the mirror. As someone who can come off as cold, especially if I feel pressured in a relationship, I have to continually learn to be a better friend by thinking about what I am nonverbally communicating. Friendships are often God's tool for conviction, but many of us distance ourselves from the reality checks that true friendships bring. If a friendship has suddenly become more difficult, I challenge you to press deeper into the friendship, at least for a season.

3) Decreasing intimacy in a friendship can be indicative of a shaky foundation.

Sometimes obstacles to intimacy reveal that a relationship was a friendship of convenience, not of communion. True friendships are, in my opinion, built on shared values and visions: faith, an idea for your community or a cause, deep convictions about politics or a certain lifestyle, etc. A once-close friendship of convenience might evolve into a more distant friendship at a speed bump, and that might be okay if the friendship is built on little else. For instance, if you move to a new city or have a baby around the same time as someone else, you are likely to bond quickly with someone in the same boat. But as time passes, you might realize that the friendship was fairly one dimensional. In those situations, perhaps it's okay to let distance enter in.

However, if one person in the friendship is distressed by a change in the friendship, things might not be so clear. Perhaps God brought that person into your life intentionally, and not just to provide you with comfort. Giving sacrificially of your love, support, and time despite a lack of shared values might be what God is calling you to do.

4) Is distance growing because of self-protection or insecurity?

If so, I say fight the urge to pull away. One of my current Besties is about 10 weeks pregnant. She has been my main confidant during my own efforts to have a child this year, including my welcome pregnancy and unwelcome miscarriage. Because I am now not pregnant and walking with her through her own pregnancy, I sometimes feel the urge to pull away simply because it can be hard to be around other pregnant women. But I know that the urge to pull away is merely an attempt to protect myself from pain, a move that might seem respectable but is fundamentally selfish. Our friendship is not about my comfort or happiness, so I fight through those urges to distance myself.

I have found that distance in a friendship can grow because of any of a number of fulfilled or unfulfilled dreams being lived out by one person in the friendship. When a friendship crosses natural boundaries created by money, love, popularity, or hardship, we are quietly living out the Shalom Jesus bled and died for us to have.

5) Every friend helps or hinders your efforts to love the Lord and love your neighbor.

I'm sorry to say it, but some of your friends are probably not good for you. This doesn't mean you should cut these people out of your life, but it does mean you need to take a fresh look at the purpose of the friendship. Often when a friendship isn't good for you, the friendship isn't good for anyone. If this situation is occurring, seek help as friends from an outside source (pastor or therapist) or dissolve the friendship.

6) For desirable friendships that are hard to maintain, create some sort of structure or regular commitment.

Many of us will always be close with high school buddies or college roommates because we saw them hundreds of days a year. When you do not have an inherent structure to a friendship, sometimes you just have to create one. Talk as friends about the things you would love to do side-by-side. Even if you are busy, you might be surprised at what you can do with someone: grocery shop, get your hair cut, go for weekly walks, pray on Skype, vacation together. Building in a little structure might be exactly what is needed to keep a friendship strong.

What lessons have you learned about friendship? What characteristics do you look for in potential friends before investing deeply in the relationship? When do you find it hardest to maintain your friendships?


Above: Josh and I spent some time with some of our dearest friends before leaving the East Coast. Despite the distance, our love and support for one another (and our growing families) continue.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Guest Blog for Stephanie S. Smith: Grief and Frustration when Conceiving

I wrote a shorter, more accessible adaptation of The Sorrow of Conception to share as a guest post with the readers of stephindialogue.com. This piece was a bit more personal rather than analytical, meaning big chunks of my heart are in it. I hope you give it a read.
___________
When encountering the hardships of life, I often think in terms of the larger idea of The Fall. But lately my thoughts have narrowed in on The Curse, especially the first part of the curse to the woman:
To the woman [God] said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” Genesis 3:16a
It’s not surprising that this has been on my mind. This year my husband and I started trying to get pregnant. I’ve never been an anxious person, but as soon as we started trying to conceive, anxiety was a new part of my life. When I was in the sixth grade, I remember journaling in class to the prompt “What are your three greatest fears?” Immediately, I wrote that my top fear was infertility. This was a bit heavy for a sixth grader, but my fear of infertility runs that deep within me. Now, 15 years later, I was finally testing the waters. And in doing so, my fear resurfaced...
Read the full post at Stephanie S. Smith's site, and peruse her site for some great content as well.
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