Sitting at a Table Eating Animal Crackers

Tonight was a church event where parents could drop off kids that were not yet in middle school and they could go and have a date night while people who volunteered watched and hung out with the kids. I was one of the people who volunteered to hang out with the kids. I had a lot of fun doing so and I enjoyed spending a Friday night helping out.

Snack time eventually rolled around. I went and sat at four conjoining tables by a number of kids. This strange thing started to happen where kids would get up and go to a specific group of kids that were sitting on the floor. Kids kept doing so and it was the same group. I started to pay more attention and the kids in the group on the floor were basically saying things to lead to that outcome. The kids at the table would hear those things and be swayed and they would go join the kids on the floor.

Maybe I should have said something. There were things I heard, but it wasn’t exactly organic. Does it need to be? And we always tell ourselves we have to choose our battles, but I sometimes wonder if that is more out of comfort for ourselves more than anything else. The group of kids I sat by ended up dwindling down to one five year old girl, who decided to stay at the table. Maybe she didn’t hear or maybe she didn’t care, I’m not sure.

As I thought about what was happening, I grew sad. Kids aren’t born innocent and I know they have their flaws, but I see so much potential for good in their lives. It’s hard not to see a sweet five year old girl and not think about the ways in which she can care deeply about the world and thereby work for the good of the world. It’s difficult not to see a fun-loving three year old boy and not think about the way he can delight in the world and through that delight care enough to change the warts he sees. But already this potential was flickering.

And I thought about why I have these thoughts about children and not adults. I am still sad when I see some of the ways we act and how we are selling ourselves short. It is kind of heart breaking to see the ways we can work for the life of the world but then notice that we are content with our nice houses, nice cars, favorite shows, etc. But I don’t see it as much. Is it because the potential isn’t there? There’s still plenty of good and beauty we all can work for, yet seeing this is always dimmer, it’s only a flicker sometimes. So I began to realize my own fickleness.

So I was sitting at a table eating animal crackers and I was sad. Sad because already the potential and beauty of the world, these kids, this specific kid was being lost. And sometimes I worry we won’t ever find that beauty again.

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Jesus and Gender Roles

The year was 1905 and a bombastic man by the name of Gilbert Keith Chesterton published a book entitled Heretics that contained essays that criticized the body of doctrine expounded by some of his most famous contemporaries. In a review of Heretics, G.S. Street said, “I shall not begin to worry about my philosophy of life until Mr. Chesterton discloses his.” Given Street’s review, he knew what he was getting himself into. Thus, in response Chesterton said, “It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.” And that is why Chesterton ended up writing one of my favorite books ever, Orthodoxy.

In a similar vein, this post is an answer to a challenge. Just as Street did not need to read Orthodoxy, my challenger need not read this post. Like Orthodoxy, this post can only be termed a “slovenly autobiography”: “even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel.”

It was a few days ago when I asked the girl I am dating what she thought about male-female marital relationships. She said that she thought the woman should stay home once there are kids and that she does most of the cleaning, etc. This did not mean that the husband does no cleaning, but it’s far from a primary responsibility. Thus I found myself in the peculiar position of thinking that if we were to get married that I should be more involved in the very thing I despise: sweeping floors, doing dishes, and, if I dare mention it, doing laundry.

It’s not that I think women have to get a job and not stay at home. I think that is fine choice that many have made. I’m just not convinced that relationships should have those sort of gender roles automatically, and this for what many might think to be the most peculiar of reasons.

You see, I have found a different vision in the life and teachings of an unmarried, middle-aged, Jewish man who lived in the first century AD. He was a man from heaven, God on earth who came to be the long-awaited Messiah and the only true Man. In times of political tension he rejected the sword and in the adoration of crowds he felt called to serve. At one point, two of his followers asked to sit at his right and left hand, but he rebuked their attitudes of striving for positions of authority and glory as the world sees it. His other followers heard of their request and became indignant, but they missed the picture too. The other ten were not mad because James and John hadn’t yet understood the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship and kingdom, but because James and John beat them to the punch. In a place where reading for the first time we might think Jesus would emphasize how distinct he is in order to show why they cannot share in his glory, he instead tells them that He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45) and thereby invites us to participate in that glory.

We find him hanging out with the outcasts of society: prostitutes, tax collectors, and lepers. He cares about children who can offer him nothing. We find him being baptized in order to identify in his nation’s plight. It’s at that baptism that we find John the Baptist being perceptive when John recognizes that he is not even worthy to carry Jesus’ sandal, a statement said to a Man that we later find washing his disciples feet.

In Philippians 2:6-11, we find Paul teaching us that Jesus did not exploit his equality with God but instead took the form of a servant and died on a cross. Why? Did Paul just decide to wax eloquently about the status of Jesus and his suffering? We find the answer before that section: we are supposed to have the same mindset as Jesus by being humble, serving others, and valuing others above ourselves.

So I said that I don’t want a relationship where it’s a sort of score keeping or social contract. I shouldn’t worry about whether I had to do the dishes more than my allotted amount this week nor should I think about laundry and automatically classify it under the category of her duties.

“Yeah but who is actually that selfless?”

Not me, that’s for sure. I don’t think this because deep down I really enjoy doing laundry and want a stake in it. I’m halfway convinced that laundry is part of the fall, if not the main part. If you want to talk about our alienation from the created order, just look at the fact that we have to do laundry.

But I digress. None of us is that selfless. Obviously there will be days where I don’t want to do the dishes even though I should. Clearly there will be times where I will think about how doing the laundry is her job when that is the wrong attitude. Certainly there will be moments when I think about how hard my day is and how easy hers is and deplore the fact that I cannot even come home to a hot meal. But if falling short is a reason to not strive for something better, well, I would have given up on everything a long time ago.

Because I think a great many things are hard: properly understanding the Bible, living out the Christian faith, working on relationships, deeply and truly caring about others who have nothing they can offer me, and, if intuition is worth anything, wanting to do laundry when I get home after a 55-hour work week that was hopelessly tiring and frustrating. But I don’t want to go through life just skating by. I don’t want to get by with good enough. I know those things take work, but I’m not okay with not putting in the effort.

Naturally, all of that can be chalked up to my age. I’m idealistic and want to change the world in ways that haven’t happened. I want to live in a way that not many have gone before me have. And, so the point goes, as I get older I will grow out of this idealism and come back to the real world. Maybe so, but I hope not. I’d rather get my head in the heavens over taming heaven in order to get it into my head.

Then there was talk about compromise and a very perceptive question that was taken as the challenge to write this post: “Yeah but if she’s cool with doing it, what’s the problem?”

On compromise: “‘it is not ideal.’ -Michael Scott” -Brett Lunn. But more seriously, the problem I see it ties into the Biblical material discussed above. I guess I just don’t see it as following the teaching of the text. Maybe that’s just where I’m at and people are at different places (and maybe they are right and I am wrong), but I am not sure splitting up chores along gender lines or what we enjoy is right. We are called to revolutionary servanthood especially in the things we don’t like doing so that we might become more like the One True Man, the only Man who ever showed us what it was like to be Human perfectly, the same Man who ate with outcasts, visited possessed people at tombs, touched the diseased, fed those who wanted him to give into one of the biggest temptations he would face, and washed the feet of those who had followed him for awhile, but still didn’t understand.

I know there will be plenty of times where I would be happier if I didn’t have to do as much cleaning or whatever, but it’s not about happiness and what works best, it’s about wholeness of being, which is perfected in brokenness. As one thinker put it, “I wanna fold clothes for you; I wanna make you feel good.”

Because it’s in petty, unsexy decisions like this that we become more like the Master who taught us, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

I’m White, You’re Wrong [Communing with Coates, part 1]

I am white. Always have been. I grew up upper middle class in a predominantly nice and white city. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of people of other races that went to the same public schools as I did and I was friends with some of them, but being white is what I know. It’s really the only thing I know.

Recently, for reasons stemming from Christianity to hip hop to present events, I have decided that it is best if I try to figure out what it means to not be white in America. Black people spoke a lot about how their American experience is different and I thought it was time to listen. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me has garnered wide praise, so I figured I would check it out. You see, it’s easy to say that I care about race reconciliation or understanding “the black experience” and then never do anything about it. I get it, it’s only reading a book, but it’s a start.

I was excited. The cashier at booksamillion told me that she really enjoyed the book. It was listed as an important book for understanding how some (all?) black people view growing up in America. So I lit my vanilla and citrus scented candle and cracked it open. Then I read this: “But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible–this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” (p. 7)

I had read some of the amazon reviews. Some people loved the book, it was exactly what people had chalked it up to be. Here was a prophetic voice who could tell white people what it’s like to be black in America. Others were not too pleased. They thought Coates blamed white people for everything. I didn’t dig too deep because I wanted to try and just listen to Coates, not preconceived notions of what he did and did not mean.

I believe I am white. I’ve always checked those or the caucasian boxes when I have had to fill out the form. I’ve always know I was a white kid. I mean, I’m even on the pale side of the white spectrum, so if I ever forgot that I was white, I could recall running for 30 minutes outside the previous summer without a shirt on and receiving a burn. I’m that white. And here it seemed like Coates was telling me that being brought up to believe I’m white (although I don’t think anyone ever had to point this out to me) was tragic and deceitful. That believing I was white was tied into “preeminence of hue and hair,” words which evoke Hitler’s master race in my mind. So was Coates saying I’m as bad as the Nazis? At this point, I had three options.

First, I could simply stop reading. There’s a ready-made defense: “Look, I really wanted to understand. I even listened to black people on what books a white person should read. I spent my hard-earned money on Between the World and Me. I gave him a chance, I really did. I was willing to listen. But out of nowhere he associated me (indirectly) with the Nazis because I believe I’m white. So don’t tell me I didn’t try.” And then I could perpetuate the cycle by saying I tried and thereby didn’t need to put any more effort to it so that I could keep myself insulated by never opening myself up to horizons beyond my world because they might change me in really uncomfortable ways. Speaking solely from human proclivities, it’s honestly not a bad option.

Second, I could have finished the book but not actually opened myself up to what he had to say. The book is short and well-written, so this would not take a big time commitment. Moreover, it would give me the added benefit of then being able to point out that I have read the book. This would give me the clout that we all so desperately want. And, once, again, it would have allowed me to stay within my own world and not be stretched in any way. Again, this is a good option.

Lastly, I could bracket for a second that I know exactly what he meant. Maybe Coates really does mean that I am similar to the Nazis because I think I am white. Maybe he really is blaming white people for societal ills. I suppose all of these are possible, but would that be the charitable thing to do right off the bat? Even if a Nazi analogy reading is obvious, the plain sense, or whatever to me, does that mean I should believe that reading instead of questioning I am reading rightly? This quote gave me an opportunity to embody interpretive charity, grace, and love, so would I take it?

The last option is the one I took. I finished Between the World and Me and I have thought about it a lot since. I’m still not sure exactly what Coates meant by that quote, although I have some theories. Reading charitably is often hard. It’s easy to take people in a pretty terrible light so that we can write them off. I have heard a lot about racial tension, how white people have negatively affected black people (and still do), and how if I think a certain thing whether it be about politics, economics, or some other topic, then that means I am racist. So writing off Coates would have been easy, and if I had taken the easy option then I would be worse off today: I would have failed to love Coates, understand others less, have a narrower perspective, and be less whole of a human being.

So interpreting charitably is difficult and I am sure I will fail to do so in the future, but, to echo Coates, maybe the struggle is worth it.