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.

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.

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.)