Learning to Forget about Myself

I wish I could tell you that you would enjoy the narrative portion of this post, but I cannot guarantee that. Yet I think the point is missed if I simply spew advice without the narrative as background, so I find the “boring” parts equally important. I hope you will too.

This last Sunday I was invited by a family at my church to come over and have lunch that afternoon. I knew the family somewhat, but not that well. And they are great people, they just returned to the States from being overseas (with some visits back to the States) for five years. I had already come to know Mark, the father, and Jimmy and Nate better, the two oldest boys, because I helped out when the youth group at my church went to a Christian summer camp a year and a half ago.

I had the opportunity to sort of meet the whole family about a week ago, but it was just an introduction of names (and sometimes only a pointing to who the person was). The whole family looked like this (in order of age): Mark, the father, Joni, the mother, Jimmy, Nate, Truett, Abe, Isaac, Delaney, and Avonlea. They live with some extended family, the father and mother of Joni, Dave and Elaine. They are really great people too. They were some of the most encouraging and welcoming people when I first started attending church. There was also a couple there that just joined our church.

I arrived and talked to Dave, Elaine, and Joni for a bit. Elaine and Joni were working on preparing lunch. I also spoke a bit to Abe. While hanging around the upstairs kitchen, Delaney, 7, came by and we started talking. I hadn’t met her before, but she was pretty outgoing. Their whole family seemed to know of me, which I was appreciative of because I enjoyed getting to know Mark, Jimmy, and Nate at camp that summer. For anyone who doesn’t know, I became very close to my pastor’s daughters when I was up in Hannibal. They were/are around Delaney and Avonlea’s ages, so I tend to have a natural affinity for caring about young girls due to those beneficial experiences.

We all helped carry stuff downstairs so that we could eat. I saw Avonlea, 5, and tried to talk to her and wave to her multiple times, but she is very shy and so she didn’t respond. Nate and Truett showed me the room they share with Abe. Abe sat next to me at the table. I spoke to the adults about various things, but nothing too major. Delaney must have seen Nate and Truett showing me their room because she told me during lunch that she could show me her room too. So once we were finished with lunch, I went with Delaney to see her room. Avonlea joined us.

While Delaney was telling me about her room and all of her stuff, out of nowhere Avonlea decided to start talking to me. She started sharing important stuff about her room. They both showed me various jewelry they had, their stuffed animals, and their princesses. We talked about movies they liked, the book their mom was reading to them at night, and related topics. After learning about them and their room, we headed back downstairs.

Abe wanted to play baseball with a plastic bat and ball and he asked me if I wanted to play with him. I said yes. Delaney and Avonlea wanted to go outside with us. I pitched to Abe while he hit the ball as Delaney and Avonlea played on the swing. Mark came out to train the dog so it understood the boundaries of the electric fence. Delaney and Avonlea decided they wanted to play baseball with us, so while Abe hit we would all race to the ball in order to see who could get there first. We let Avonlea win once and she was happy. Delaney also won.

Then, Delaney and Avonlea had opportunities to try and hit the ball. Delaney had some success on her own. I helped Avonlea learn how to stand and swing the right sort of way and she ended up hitting the ball a few times. She was ecstatic, and so were we. Abe climbed a tree as I pushed Delaney and Avonlea on the swing at various times. It started to get cold and Avonlea wanted to go inside (Delaney was inside looking for gloves already), so she asked me if I would go inside with her. We all headed in.

Inside, Delaney, Avonlea, and I played “Guess Who?” for a few games. They showed me more of their room and also their storage room. If you haven’t noticed yet, I spent most of my time with the two of them. At one point, I pointed out to Avonlea that she wouldn’t even talk to me at first and now she was very talkative. She told me about that she’s shy with the characteristic sass that only a young girl around her age has. They were talking about their hair stuff when their Joni told me that I didn’t have to let them do my hair. I laughed and pointed out to Avonlea that my hair was almost as long as hers. She observed, “Your hair is curly. Do you curl it?!” I denied the charge while enjoying the cute honesty that surrounds children. And the way they grab your arm/hand so that you will come with them and you have to do that awkward walk/run thing (like when someone in a car tells you you can cross the street or someone holds a door open when you are a bit away) because they are going too fast to keep up by walking but if you jog you will run over them.

Mark told me that I wasn’t forced to be in their room learning about their stuffed animals. And that brings me to the inexplicable point that somehow I am good with children when pretty much anyone who knows me (including myself) would probably predict the opposite. That is something I have thought long about and I’m still not sure why, but I think I have a clue.

In Mark telling me I wasn’t obligated, he didn’t mean anything negative by it. He loves his family very much. But I think he was pointing out something that probably affects many people in being around little children. To be frank, I’m really not that personally interested in princesses, stuffed animals, and a lot of stuff that girls are interested in. There’s never been a point in my life when I wanted to sit down and learn more about princesses. I think that’s what partially explains why people have a difficult time around children: we are so interested in talking about stuff that we are interested in, that being around children and listening to them talk about princesses becomes a chore. We are oftentimes willing to put up with it and sometimes we can fool children with our fake reactions, but they end up figuring it out and that probably affects them in deeply negative ways that we never consider.

Because when Delaney and Avonlea are telling me about stuffed animal owls including the names of the father, mother, and baby owl, that’s not something I would think about looking at the tag to find out on my own. But what ends up happening is I’m interested in what they are interested in because I’m interested in them. I find joy in their joy in those things because I find joy in them. And that’s a lot easier for me to do with children. This was my first time ever getting to know Delaney and Avonlea and it was only for a few hours, but something about the openness of kids makes me more open. Kids laugh because they are happy, and they are never worried about whether it’s a “pretty” laugh according to social standards, which I think we could learn a lot from.

So maybe that’s why I get along with children so well. Because I actually care about what they have to say. Not as a means of getting through it so I can take my turn to talk, but as an outworking of my care for them. I’m no saint: this is not my natural disposition; I doubt it is anyone’s.

And all of that brings me to something else I noticed when I reflected on those moments. In learning about Delaney’s and Avonlea’s jewelry, I found myself forgetting about wanting to share the quirky things that interest me: language, cultural history, etc. When I talked to Mark and Joni last Sunday, I mentioned how I read a lot. They asked me what I was reading and I said I was reading Karl Barth right now and gave a bit of details. They mentioned that they would like to hear more. And to be honest, talking about Karl Barth probably interests me a lot more than it should. I could probably talk about him a lot longer than anyone would want to listen (and rightfully so). But they were willing to listen because they cared.

Because in those moments with Delaney and Avonlea, I learned to forget about myself. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t share about my reading if people asked. The point isn’t being rude. And that doesn’t mean that all of the sudden I no longer enjoyed philosophy of language, I still did. I am still willing to share if that will help them grow in some way or help us grow as people in right relationships. But so much of wanting to share is because it is sharing about me instead of sharing for you and for us. And I think if we could learn to forget about ourselves, even if it’s only for moments at a time at first, and we could figure out how to want to share out of love for others, both in their own growth and in our growth in relationship, then we would be growing in a lot of ways. Since God wants us to be whole people who are flourishing in right relationships with others, this is something we should be pursuing. I can’t absolutize my experience and say what works for me will work for you, but I hope reading this either awakens you to these things or encourages you in pursuing them.

Delaney and Avonlea told me they had a lot of fun. I told them I did too. They said they hoped I would come over again. Yeah, I would like that.

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Scientific Dogmatics, once again [Blogging through Barth, part 6]

Barth returns to his discussion of dogmatics as a science and his comments are very helpful for thinking through the theological task. Barth says there are three things that are demanded of scientific dogmatics.

1. Scientific dogmatics must focus on Church proclamation as such, not problems that might arise in proximity to concepts in Church proclamation.

Barth’s point here is tied into our earlier discussion of the theological task. The temptation, in Barth’s mind, is that theologians might focus on trying to make Church proclamation conform to other areas or justify Church proclamation by means of other disciplines and methods. Instead, the goal of the Church is to proclaim the good news. Thus, the purpose of scientific dogmatics is to focus on the Church’s proclamation. This leads us to the second point…

2. Scientific dogmatics must devote itself to the correction of Church proclamation.

“Its scientific character consists in unsettling rather than confirming Church proclamation as it meets it in its previous concretions and especially in its present-day concretion.” (281; I.1)

The danger is that the person studying theology will simply want to affirm what the Church says. The result is “a pleasant certification that all is well and can go on as it has been.” (282; I.1) Instead, if dogmatics is to be scientific, then it must be focused on correction. The reason for this is simple: “So long as the Church on earth is a Church of sinners and its proclamation is thus beset by the most serious problems, one can say very definitely that a dogmatics which takes this attitude and produces this result is wrong.” (ibid.)

In doing this, we might begin to think that we are above the Church, for we are correcting the Church’s proclamation. We also might begin to correct with an unrighteous attitude. Here again Barth is helpful: “The only dogmatics to answer the question of this true Church is the one which examines the problematic nature of its own existence, which does not merely aim to say something, but by saying something aims to serve, to help.” (281; I.1; emphasis mine)

3. Scientific dogmatics criticizes Church proclamation in light of the revelation attested in Holy Scripture.

“Dogmatic work stands or falls by whether the standard by which Church proclamation is measured is the revelation attested in Holy Scripture and not a philosophical, ethical, psychological or political theory.” (283; I.1)

Church proclamation is not measured by whether it is in line with the Republican party, whether it supports a certain view of free will, whether it lines up with our ideas of what God should be like, but it is measured by the revelation attested in Holy Scripture. This doesn’t mean we should fool ourselves into thinking that we come to the text or Church proclamation without presuppositions, but we should let revelation be the end goal:

“Now it is obvious that everyone who works at dogmatics works more or less with specific intellectual presuppositions. The only question is whether in addition to these he also knows the sign of the divine promise which is set up in the Church and whether he is able and willing, in a way that admits of no proof, to take this sign so seriously that in this context its direction takes absolute precedence over all the directions he might owe to the humanities. If and so far as this is so, his work is scientific, and if and so far as it is not so, his work is not scientific, no matter how scientific it may be considered from other angles.” (283; I.1)

This does not mean that learning is unimportant though:

“It is quite right–and we are not questioning this here but emphatically underlining it–that an education in the arts and a familiarity with the thinking of the philosopher, psychologist, historian, aesthetician, etc., should be demanded of the dogmatician or the theologian.The dogmatician, too, must think and speak in a particular age and should thus be a man of his age, which also means a man of the past that constitutes his age, i.e.,  an educated man.” (ibid.)

Lest Barth be misunderstood, he makes his point clear:

“Nevertheless, the only element in education that makes him a dogmatician is the one which is not provided in all these other disciplines and which consists in indemonstrable and unassuming attention to the sign of Holy Scripture around which the Church gathers and continually becomes the Church.” (ibid.)

Random Quotes 2 [Blogging through Barth, part 5]

“The doubtful thing is not where God is person, but whether we are.” (138; I.1)

“God’s faithfulness to His Church consists in His availing Himself of His freedom to come to us Himself in His Word and in His reserving to Himself the freedom to do this again and again.” (139; I.1)

“When God’s Word is heard and proclaimed, something takes place that for all our hermeneutical skill cannot be brought about by hermeneutical skill.” (148; I.1)

“If the Church believes what it says it believes, then it is the place where the victory of Jesus Christ is not the last word to be heard and passed on but the first…The Church which is this place will have something to say to the world and will be taken seriously by the world.” (156; I.1)

“Invariably, then, faith is acknowledgment of our limit and acknowledgement of the mystery of God’s Word, acknowledgment of the fact that our hearing is bound to God Himself…and to Himself, not giving Himself in either case into our hands but keeping us in His hands.” (176; I.1)

“The possibility of knowledge of God’s Word lies in God’s Word and nowhere else.” (222; I.1)

“He has not created his own faith; the Word has created it. He has not come to faith; faith has come to him through the Word. He has not adopted faith; faith has been granted to him through the Word.” (244; I.1)

The Bible against the Church [Blogging through Barth, part 4]

At the outset, let me say that I do not claim that this whole post will be faithful to Barth. It is often difficult to speak in the precise way he wants because he’s a pretty original thinker. With that caveat in mind, I found his discussion of the function of the Bible in the church really stimulating.

We have all heard it before, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” I find myself in a weird position: I see people (rightly) criticize a simplistic understanding of this saying but they do so for the wrong reasons. Once Barth was asked how he would summarize his work, he responded: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I find that interesting because while this response could be read in a simplistic way in line with the quote at the beginning of this paragraph, we still have a lot to learn from Barth about the function of the Bible in the church.

“The Bible found a voice and finds a voice in the Church. Hence the possibility is not ruled out that it may also find a voice over against the church…It might happen that in the Bible whose voice still sounds in the Church man hears the Word of God, that he really hears the Word which cannot be held captive or bracketed by the Church, which cannot be integrated into the Church’s own reality, which cannot by any interpretation be translated into a word of man, the Word which encounters the Church, with which the Church cannot sing a duet, but which it has simply to listen to as a full and unique solo.” (260-261; I.1)

Contextualizing Barth’s response in evangelicalism (in the sense often meant in America today, not the one Barth uses), it can be seen in response to a simply but deadly syllogism:

  1. What the Bible says is infallibly true.
  2. My interpretation of a Biblical text is what the Bible says.
  3. Therefore, my interpretation is infallibly true.

Because we have this tendency to conflate what God says in Scripture with our interpretation of Scripture since, obviously, our interpretation is for good reasons and so is the proper interpretation. The upshot of this is that if you disagree with me, then you are disagreeing with Scripture and thus God. Since the Bible says it, that settles it for me because I am faithful to God, while you on the other hand… Sometimes this thinking is explicit and sometimes (and more perniciously) this thinking isn’t as obvious.

A lot of this is often tied into the particular traditions we function in. Thus, proclamation is measured by whether it is truly Reformed, truly Arminian, in line with a congregational ecclesiology, etc. While this certainly has its place (as Barth notes), one starts to wonder if we ever really open ourselves up and ask whether the tradition we are working in is actually faithful to the text. Our natural response is to think that we have already examined Scripture and that’s why we part of the tradition we are a part of, but if we come to Scripture thinking we have the answers to certain questions, it’s doubtful that we are going to hear anything that says otherwise. Nonetheless, to follow Barth, the free God can still give grace even in our attempt to tame the text.

So, “dogmatics as the question of the Word of God in Church proclamation must be the critical question as to the agreement of Church proclamation, not with a norm of human truth or human value (the first possibility in our dilemma), nor with a standard of divine truth already known and proclaimed by the Church (the second possibility), but with the revelation attested in Holy Scripture.” (265; I.1) Even more specifically, “If questioned ceased, if dogma itself came on the scene instead of dogmas and dogmatic propositions, if the agreement of specific Church proclamation with the Word of God and therefore the Word of God itself in this specific Church proclamation could be demonstrated, then dogmatics would be at an end along with the ecclesia militans, and the kingdom of God would have dawned.” (269; I.1)

All of this can sound very abstract, so I find Barth’s comment at the end of this section particularly pertinent. “[Dogmatics] is a matter of the will of God whose acknowledgement or non-acknowledgement in the Church’s proclamation is somethign that should truly unsettle the whole Church, the Church as such and in all its members. The Church stands or falls with the object of dogmatic enquiry. Hence it has to undertake this enquiry…We pursue dogmatics because, constrained by the fact of the Bible, we cannot shake off the question of the obedience of Church proclamation.” (274; I.1)

“But a theology claiming to know and have dogma would be a theologia gloriae, which the dogmatics of the Church ought not to seek to be.” (268; I.1)

MLK Jr. Day–Learning to Listen

Tomorrow is MLK Jr. Day. I plan on doing two things in order to make the most of it:

(1) Most importantly, I plan on listening to MLK Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. I have done this for a few years and have found it beneficial. Sometimes I pay attention to the makeup of the crowd, other times I try to think about the Biblical precursors underlying his speech (sometimes these are obvious because they are explicit quotes), etc. But the goal isn’t to simply to learn facts, but to be changed and shaped into the type of person who would be part of the struggle that MLK Jr. was part of.

(2) Second, I plan on starting Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. That book has been described in a lot of different ways, some very positive and others very negative. If you want a taste, just go browse some of the reviews. I think it would be easy for me to read it so that I can say that I read it and not actually listen to what Coates has to say. That way I can claim to be “enlightened” and care about social justice issues and thereby be superior to all of these racist people that don’t get it, but really I would just be going through the motions. I don’t really care much for that, so I am going to try and listen, try and open myself up to what he has to say, especially if it is uncomfortable to hear. I probably end up blogging about the book at some point, but we will see.

I hope you will at least listen to MLK Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech and see if it doesn’t make you into a better person.