"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Friday, January 28, 2011

The State of the Union/Church: Civility and Competition

Joann and I watched the State of the Union the other night. Truthfully, part of the fun of our viewing experience was our heckling. We couldn’t help but visualize Fred Armisen (SNL) every time Obama spoke with his distinct cadence. And the woman in the audience spoken of by Obama who, with cameras on her, clarified for those around her, “that’s me…that’s me,” gave me a good laugh. And John Boehner’s grimaces and discomfort with many of Obama’s remarks contrasted with Biden’s laid-back, occasionally amused demeanor was entertaining.

I also watched with curiosity about our nation’s direction, as I’m heavily concerned with exploring how the Church should respond to and engage with the issues of our time. There were the usual issues mentioned which Christians often address with conflicting opinions—our wars abroad, oil and the environment, spending. But there were a couple of themes in particular that jumped out at me.

First, an admission of my assumptions. I don’t think the Church should be disengaged with social and political issues, as we have a voice that should be heard. I also understand the Church to be, by the intent of its founder, a radical community (hopefully radical about the right things). I believe we should strive to make the love of God known by manifesting that love in all facets of our lives—personal and social. I think sometimes our witness will involve activism. But I may be more interested in how the Church should be embodying in its own community the kind of action we hope to see taken by our greater national community, so that we can truly be a light. We must both speak out as well deal with our own internal struggles.

1) Civility. I would love to be able to tell my non-Christian friends, “You’re frustrated with the lack of civility in public discourse? Then look to the Church for hope—it is a shining example of what it means to have respectful, truth-seeking dialogue!”

I suppose my perspective is a bit jaded by a series of church conflicts involving friends and friends of friends. And the story seems fairly similar in a lot of these conflicts, usually involving either some element of personal attack, passive-aggressive behavior, hidden agendas, or one party refusing to budge on its position or perspective, seemingly convinced that being open-minded or truly listening to the other puts one at risk of “losing the battle” or being wrong.

It seems we even give the illusion at times of being civil, when such civility is more of a surfacy “niceness” hiding less kind feelings, rather than sincere kindness and warmth. I also observe a lot of Christian dialogue online, which is sometimes very respectable but at times can get heated, typically involving those who are more religiously conservative attacking the more liberal, though it does go both ways.

Civility in politics is a problem, yes. I got a bit annoyed hearing that Rush Limbaugh recently did some kind of derogatory impression of Asian people. Not that I idolized him and have been suddenly disillusioned. Speaking of Limbaugh, am I the only one that finds it hilarious that an SNL alum (Al Franken) is a senator now? Can’t wait for Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler to enter the political arena. Yes, imagine it…hard not to smile, right?

But civility in the Church can be a problem too, and being a witness to the world means getting our act together on this matter, I think. I want my fellow Christians and I to be a model to the world about what it means to engage in dialogue in a way that doesn’t reflect partisanship, defensiveness, stubbornness, or laziness, but that reflects a love-driven pursuit of truth, justice and goodness for all. I hope that, in light of the current political climate, Christian leaders are teaching their communities the importance of such discourse and modeling it themselves.

2) Competition. I think my bias here is not informed by my religious convictions alone but also my experiences with an international community. As I listened to Obama push for a spirit of learning and investment in various projects, citing frequently the need to “lead the world” when it comes to our success as nation, I wondered: is this an attitude that I, as a follower of Christ, can get behind?

I think having lived outside of America for a while, in the home of our apparent new economic “enemy,” China, I have been gradually losing whatever nationalism I possessed. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for the life I’ve been afforded, a life heavily shaped by living in a capitalistic society that perhaps got where it was because of a competitive drive to be the best. But as people seem more willing to admit today than when I was in grade school, our nation’s founding and early successes came at the expense of others, be they Native Americans or slaves or the nation’s poor.

I get why being competitive can be good. I’ve heard the arguments that economic competition doesn’t necessitate that some win and some lose but rather that wealth is created and not simply transferred. And perhaps the competitive spirit, as in sports, spurs people on to be the best they can be.

But as a person who doesn’t find my identity primarily in being an American but in being a part of the diverse human community, created and loved by God, it’s hard to get excited about the idea that it’s an inherent good for my nation to be the best at everything.

Optimistically, maybe such fervor can inspire other nations to improve their situations and economies and quality of life, while also inspiring Americans to collaborate, work hard and empower individuals who are “stuck” to find hope and inspiration to improve their lives while also encouraging parents to be better parents.

Pessimistically, maybe such competitive fervor encourages other nations (like China) to continue to raise up success as a goal and pursue rapid growth at the expense of its families and its spiritual and emotional health, while at the same time teaching Americans that what counts is being the best, turning us inward and encouraging excessive nationalism, and turning progress into an idol that destroys our soul.

I don’t really know. The heart of the issue for me is whether or not the Church can come alongside this competitive spirit and also be faithful to the spirit of Jesus. I think the Church often acts competitively. Churches, maybe not in words but in practice, seem to compete with each other, hoping their particular set of programs, worship, preaching, community, whatever, will draw people. I’ve heard it said many times that most church growth today is actually transfer growth—people leaving one church for another.

I also wonder if maybe the way we’ve been taught to share our faith with others has a bit of a competitive edge, in that the thought of conversion and church growth is thrilling and/or validating because such things indicate that “we’re on the winning team” and give us a sense of rightness or security. But I don’t think the Church will ever be on the “winning” team in our world, at least not until the end of all things when all will one day know more fully and accurately (even Christians) who God is. I tend to think our goal as the Church should not be to prove ourselves as much as live as faithful witnesses to a God of love, offering people hope and bringing about change where appropriate. We’re called to be faithful, not victorious; I believe victory is God’s department.

I think this issue, like that of immigration, poses a similar set of challenges to the Church: to question any “us vs. them” mentality; to grapple with what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves on a global scale; to wrestle with what we assume we are entitled to because we have been born and raised in America; and to consider what our part as the Church is in such matters. Is it to mind our own business and stay out of politics? To play the role that liberals want the government to play and conservatives want the family to play? To live as a light to the world in the way we dialogue, collaborate, and understand the worth of every individual be they from our own tribe or another? To heckle? :)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Thoughts on Tiger Mothers

I’ve enjoyed the recent discussion about Chinese parenting, spurred on by Amy Chua’s new book. If you haven’t heard much about it, check out this article from the Wall Street Journal: “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” I’d say try to read it with an open mind. Or maybe read it with your regular mind, then re-read it with an open mind.

While not yet a parent, I do plan on becoming one at some point; that’s one part of the intrigue of the article for me. But I think on a more emotional level, the article takes me back to some of the discomfort I felt in China last year regarding approaches to parenting.

The article is meant to be provocative, and it is. It actually provides some good critiques of American parenting, addressing values such as self-esteem and freedom of choice/expression/path. There’s a lot that may be agitating to an American reader here, especially her advocacy for a high amount of restrictions, shaming children into success, and near-complete dictation of children’s interests and time commitments.

This mindset to some degree informed the way I encouraged my students in China. I did have to be careful, because it was and is a challenge to recognize my cultural biases and discern what is simply different from what I believe is actually unhealthy. For example, I encountered a lot of students who were very open about their greatest ambition: to be rich. You’re not supposed to admit that all you care about is money, right? In China, it simply seemed to make sense to them. You work hard to become successful to make money.

But to their credit, this motivation for money-making may reflect China’s more collectivist worldview. I imagine many students wanted to make money because they know that’s what keeps the system going—that’s how they’ll provide for their families, that’s how they’ll contribute to society. I don’t want to deny that there is greed at work here, and that money is a widespread idol that won’t truly bring my students fulfillment. But it’s also tied in with more respectable realities, such as China’s “filial piety” culture.

So I would guess part of the reason Chinese parents generally (trying to avoid stereotyping) are stricter with their children is motivated by love as well as the nature of Chinese society: they believe that their child’s happiness and well-being is dependent on children excelling at something and thus becoming successful and making a lot of money—an excellence that will only come from intense pressure, discipline, and guidance from the parents.

Not to mention the parents’ well-being, since most children are expected to provide for their parents. That, combined with China’s honor culture, makes me sympathize with their situation. If your well-being and sense of honor is heavily dependent on your child’s success, then wouldn’t it be hard to not be harsh, controlling, and demanding of your children rather than giving them the space to fail, go at their own pace, let them express themselves, "find" themselves like we do in America?

I think Chinese parents who operate like Chua describes in her article truly believe they’re doing the right thing. But I also think a person can be motivated by love but express that love in a poor way. Is that fair to say? I can feel love toward someone, adore them, think highly of them, but the actual ways that I choose to express that love might be unhelpful, destructive, or ineffective. The problem is not in my feelings toward someone, but in my methods, the expressions of that love. I think a bit of open-minded, self-criticism can be a good thing when it comes to the ways we actively love those around us.

And I think that’s the problem I have with what I saw in China. It was a challenge not to be judgmental of what I witnessed in the lives and stories of my students. It was easy to think of myself as a sort of John Keating, trying to help my Chinese students and friends “seize the day” rather than follow a prescribed path set out for them. Just because a parent determines a career for you doesn’t mean it’s fitting for you.

I try to hold nature and nurture in tension; I recognize some of us may be predisposed toward certain interests and skills, but that to some extent those interests and skills can be chosen by us (or our parents). And I also hold in tension young people’s free will and their incapability of choice (in other words, do children really know what’s best for themselves?).

I think the underlying assumption of Chua’s style of parenting is that children don’t know what’s best for them, and need to have their decisions made for them. I suppose balance is key here, as in many things: a parenting style that recognizes children’s naivety while also respecting their individuality and freedom.

Maybe our American emphasis on self-esteem and self-discovery has the potential to instill negative tendencies in children, such as a strong sense of entitlement, indifference to the greater good of society, a poor work ethic, or maybe even a kind of psychological/emotional dependency on constant praise and validation. But the dangers of opposite emphases are there too, as I encountered in China.

I encountered what I believe are tragic byproducts of the pressure placed on students by parents: students miserable with their major, chosen for them by parents; stories of student suicides related to poor grades and fear of parent reaction; students skilled in memorization and repetition but less in creative and critical thinking; a physically-abused female student unwilling to tell her parents for fear of being blamed and shamed; students feeling insecure about weight and appearance aided by their parents’ bluntness in calling them “fat;” female students affected in different ways by their parents’ disappointment at not having a boy; the way students were sheltered from such things as sexuality, which—while motivated by a desire to keep their children pure and focused—for many seemed to just lead to later mistakes due to ignorance about sexuality; and a general lack of self-confidence and fear of standing out or looking silly.

Some of my critiques here are admittedly reflective of my bias, which was part of the challenge—wrestling with what was wrong versus what was just different.

But the other important factor for me is that I’m a Christian. And thus I believe that my conclusions about appropriate parenting should be informed by my Christian convictions. Through these lenses, I find it really hard to see the goodness in the kind of parenting Chua is describing. Part of this is because the “ends” of Chua’s parenting and the ends of the Christian life are different, I think. Chua wants her kids to be successful, and seems to believe that such success will bring happiness.

A parent of a student I visited with last year in China told me the most important thing to him in life was money. When you have money, he said, then you are free to do what you want and are in greater control of your life. But the goals of the Christian life are not success, control, spending power. Even if an individual is “successful,” or if an entire country is successful, does that mean they are truly better off, in God’s economy of what it means to be well-off or blessed? This is the question I have to ask if I’m to be faithful to my religious convictions.

Anyway… read the article. Those of you who are parents or even psychologists might be better able to speak to this issue than me. I'm no parenting expert (though, Mom and Dad, I know you guys nailed it, nice work...wait, that sounds like an indirect self-compliment, doesn't it?). I’m curious to know how others respond to what Chua has to say—with repulsion? Sympathy? With self-criticism of your own parenting? More confidence in your own parenting? Feedback welcome.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Whimsical but Heartfelt Tribute to My Childhood Dog, Snickers (1992-2011)


It was a weekend of grieving but also of relief. The picture above and the pictures below are from the last hour of Snickers’ life. After some ethical wrestling, the difficult decision was made by our family to have him put down this past weekend.

I got Snickers for my 10th birthday, and I’m now nearly 28. The stubborn dog just wouldn’t die, far outliving what anyone expected. But while his heart was still beating, his age was definitely showing, as in recent years he’d lost much of his hearing and sight, his ability to walk well, his teeth, his sense of direction (maybe due to sight), his ability to control his bowels, while also having grown several tumors on his body.

We thought it to be the merciful thing to do to put him to sleep—both for him, and also for my mother I’d say. I haven’t lived at home regularly in a decade, while my mom has very faithfully taken care of him even when taking care of him became an increasingly greater burden. She certainly has had a more difficult time with what has transpired, as her and Snickers’ lives have been a bit more interwoven than his and mine in recent years.

It wasn’t easy. But I’m content with the closure I felt I had. I picked Snickers up from my parents' house and took him to my Grandma’s more spacious property to walk around a bit, hoping maybe the exercise might wear him out and save me a trip to the vet. Actually, I tried to reason with him the night before, suggesting that it might be worth just dying in his sleep, since he doesn’t care much for the vet anyway. I don’t think he considered it that extensively. I also don’t think he understands much beyond a few English words.

Anyway, we wandered around a bit, hobbling more than walking, before I spent a while massaging him and scratching him, trying to make sure his last hour was filled with love. And it is love. It might sound a bit like hyperbole to those who aren’t really dog people, but we loved Snickers and were loved by him in a very real way.

I don’t know how lovable Snickers actually is, really. He ate, slept, barked, shed hair, humped inanimate objects and human legs in his younger years—a fairly simple life. I imagine part of his gift to my family, part of his “act of love” was giving us the opportunity to love him—especially my Mom, who, as I said, very faithfully attended to his needs, but also me to some extent, as my childhood and the occasional visits home in my twenties afforded me the opportunity to shower him with affection and attention.

It’s hard to pinpoint to what extent Snickers actually made me more aware of the beauty of Love and more able to give such love in my relationships with others. But I imagine it helped, if only a little bit.

I didn’t cry. I haven’t really cried about any life circumstances in a long time. The only times my eyes get watery are when my contacts are bothering me. Or every time little Forrest breaks free of his braces while Alan Silvestri’s gorgeous score supports his liberation; or when Andy and Red finally meet on a Mexican beach and hope is fulfilled. I probably also cried the first time I saw Simba claim his throne, or cried in fear the first time I heard one of Samuel L. Jackson’s Bible-quoting, pre-murder speeches. 1994 was a very good year for movies.

While I didn’t shed tears, I still felt my heart racing, especially looking into Snickers' eyes and holding him still while the shot was given, catching him in my arms as he slowly drifted off. My heart was also racing while carrying him out of the vet hospital, having to tell several children in the waiting room “he’s just sleeping!” while looking apologetically at the parents who probably didn’t want their kids watching.

I dug a deep grave, buried him, made a makeshift cross out of discarded parts of our old deck, and offered a fairly lighthearted speech with Joann and my Dad standing by. I poked a bit of fun at my dog, shared some nostalgic remembrances, and offered a hopeful prayer that in the end—when I believe God will usher in a new creation, restored, reconciled, and made whole—God might find it in his heart to welcome Snickers into this new world. I don’t know if all dogs go to heaven, as the forgettable animated movie from my childhood suggests. But here’s hoping Snickers makes it. :)

Thanks Snickers, for being a part of our lives. Rest in peace.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Top Ten Books of 2010

Inspired by my friend Jeff’s recent blog post (translation: stole his idea), I thought it worth sharing my favorite reads from this past year, to think back to my recent influences. There’s also a chance one of these books catches your eye. Since I’m not listing any books I didn’t enjoy here, I recommend them all!

Without further ado…

10) What is the What? by Dave Eggers. I might be including this above a couple other better books. It’s a slightly fictionalized story centered on the real experiences and recollections of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The glimpse into history was great, the story both fun at times and horrifying at others. And it’s the closest thing to fiction I read this past year, so I felt I should include it. Hopefully 2011 fares better for fiction for this Literature major. Or people will start thinking I take life way too seriously.

9) The Hauerwas Reader by Stanley Hauerwas. It was the year of Hauerwas for me, as indicated by the fact that three of his books made my top ten. This book is a hefty collection of lectures and speeches from arguably one the most important American theologians writing today. His reflections on narrative theology, ethics, the importance of character in the Christian life, and nonviolence have all been hugely influential in my recent thinking (and hopefully acting).

8) It’s Really All About God: Reflection of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian by Samir Selmanovic. A provocative, challenging call to interfaith dialogue, to expecting to find God in the faith and actions of those with little concern for Jesus, and to recognize along with the writer of James how lacking and empty a “faith” or “religion” is that doesn’t include practical, tangible actions of love by those claiming such a faith. Nice mix of narrative and theology.

7) Sheet Music by Dr. Kevin Leman. I had to include this book here, not necessarily because it was an excellent read, as much as a sort of rite of passage book for me, seeing as the window of time in which I think I’d actually have much interest in reading such a book was pretty brief. It’s a sex book. And to some extent, it really was pretty fun and helpful. As much as I’d like to arrogantly say most of its’ content was pretty intuitive for me, it contained a few helpful insights. Unfortunately, the author sort of lost me part way through the book when he opted to begin using the term “Mr. Happy” instead of the more technical, and in my mind, appropriate name for that particular body part. A renowned sex psychologist seemed to all of the sudden feel a bit sheepish about his terms. That annoyed me and brought the book down a few notches.

6) Justification by N.T. Wright. This may be the least accessible book of all that I’ve listed here, though an important contribution to the scholarly work that’s been done on “The New Perspective.” Wright makes a case that we misinterpret Paul by assuming that in his writings on salvation and justification he was rejecting good works as having relevance to our salvation. Wright argues that many since Luther (though not necessarily including Luther) have been too rash in rejecting “works” in the Christian life and in so doing the Church has not been as mindful as it could be of its calling to be God’s covenant community—like the Jewish people who preceded the Christian Church—a community that by its Christ-inspired works and deeds (or whatever you want to call them) gives people a sign and a foretaste of what God has done and will do. If you like John Piper, you might not like the book (much of Wright’s work in a response to attacks, er, “critiques” from Piper).

5) The Genesee Diary by Henri Nouwen. An essential Nouwen book I hadn’t yet acquired. This has acted as a morning devotional for me for some time now, as Nouwen’s raw recollections of the kind of ugly truths he discovers about himself when removed from the comforts of his profession and fame have challenged me to prayerfully consider my own ugly tendencies, especially the ways that I, like Nouwen, am a very needy individual desperately seeking validation in ways that can cause me to do more harm than good in the lives of others.

4) In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann. I was interested in this book because I felt like I was missing out on something having never read Moltmann. I was. I have another of his books on my “to-read” list in the new year. This seems like it’s probably one of his more accessible books on a prominent theme of his: hope. Moltmann, among others, has been helpful in showing me how important eschatology is in understanding how we are to live now as a Christian community, orienting our lives toward that final end in a way that brings life and hope to the world now. Eschatology, that is, not as in pointless speculation about exactly how the world’s going to go to hell in the last days but as in the promised end of humankind, a restored and reconciled humankind foreshadowed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And, I can’t resist…a Shawshank quote: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things…and no good thing ever dies.”

3) The Peaceable Kingdom by Stanley Hauerwas. This seems like a good starting point for someone wanting to delve into Hauerwas, much like I often recommend The Gospel in a Pluralist Society for someone searching for Newbigin’s (the focus of my master’s thesis) most thematically comprehensive work. Hauerwas writes so compelling about the church’s responsibility, as he sees it, to take seriously our call to live virtuously, ethically, peaceably with one another, because—others are watching, and because it’s our call—to be a community of people that give the world a glimpse of what God’s Kingdom will one day look like. But beware—this is the kind of theology that can make the Christian life seem more difficult, less comfortable. Though without such an approach to following Jesus, I’d say the Christian life is not that qualitatively different from non-Christian life, other than in the sense that we do more churchy things.

2) Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. Volf is probably my favorite go-to on matters of reconciliation. This was a great critique of our all-too-common failures to appropriately respond to what is “other” to us. On our problem: “We exclude because we are uncomfortable with anything that blurs accepted boundaries, disturbs our identities, and disarranges our symbolic cultural maps” (78). On one part of the solution: “We move into the world of the other temporarily…we use imagination to see why their perspective about themselves, about us, and about our common history, can be so plausible to them whereas it is implausible, profoundly strange, or even offensive to us.” (252).

1) Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas. I ended the year with this book, and I really have to fight idolizing this brilliant, baseball-loving, running, humble, direct and honest old man. I’m hoping to initiate some kind of correspondence with him, especially since he teaches at Duke Divinity School, where I think I have a fool’s chance of actually getting accepted to for a PhD (but will apply nonetheless). This was a whole other side of him, a bit more transparent than his more academic work. A sample, on childhood: “The family loved to tell the story of how Billy Dick, my six-year old cousin, reacted to the story of the crucifixion at Sunday School by shouting out, ‘If Gene Autry had been there the dirty sons of bitches wouldn’t have gotten away with it.’ Of course, we knew you should not say “sons of bitches,” particularly in Sunday School…” (6).

Already devouring several new books for 2011!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Criticisms of the Disciplines

Like I mentioned a few days ago (see previous post), I'm intrigued by the criticism of the practicing of spiritual disciplines I’ve sensed from many in Christianity. Though I’m mostly unimpressed by the arguments against it, I think I understand the concerns and fears behind these critiques.

Some seem uncomfortable with how ecumenical it is. Well…for a person interested, for example, in how some principles of Buddhism can help me be a better follower of Jesus, I’m obviously kind of indifferent to a criticism of being in dialogue with other opinions within our own religious tradition.

I know many insist on recognizing the incompatibility and differences between various Christian expressions rather than their unity and similarity. But I think such plurality of belief within our faith gives us a better glimpse of the whole. That is to say that Catholics needs Charismatics, Methodists need Presbyterians, and Baptists need Mennonites to better understand God.

I know most denominations don’t think they need one another, and, at our worst, we assume that there is nothing of value in these other traditions. But I find that narrow-minded, silly, maybe a defense mechanism against that which “threatens” us. We should be able to help one another in our faith journey by sharing our own insights with others, regardless of what doctrines we disagree on.

Some seem to feel spiritual disciplines are a bit too mystical—too much focus on meditative practices, or too New-Agey, or too at risk of exposing yourself to the demonic, or whatever. I honestly don’t live with such fear in my spirituality. I don’t fear encountering evil by opening myself up to God in prayer, by seeking detachment from my worldly attachments, or by doing something that non-Christians would do in their spirituality.

I fear encountering evil more in myself when I have not spent time in prayer and meditation, the kind of evil that comes out in my laziness, anger, jealously, judgmental attitude, indifference to the needs and hurts of others, and self-preservation.

A few critics seem to feel that the disciplines are unbiblical or extra-biblical (and therefore suspect), because, there’s no specific passage commanding us to practice the spiritual disciplines. There’s also no specific passage about serving coffee on Sunday mornings, but we do it.

Silly “point” aside, I guess this is an issue of what questions one is asking in considering how to be a “good” Christian. For example, if my question is, “how can I live biblically?” then maybe I’ll come to one set of conclusions. If my question is “how can I become more like Jesus?” or “how can I better know and experience the love of God?” then I may come to different conclusions.

Maybe those questions sound the same. But often someone's choice of words reveals the assumptions behind those words. For example, when I hear someone ask, "is it Biblical?" instead of "can it help me know Jesus better?" I know there are very different assumptions at work behind each question, and can probably tell you a number of other things they believe or value just by those simple few words.

This is probably why I want to better understand the faith of my Muslim students at Evergreen, and why I wish I had more time to study history, science, philosophy, sociology, literature, etc. I'm hungry for learning, for understanding. And I think there may be insights and practices in the faith of others and in the various studies that can help me know the God of Jesus better. I do not fear exposing myself to “evil” by such extra-biblical practices.

But maybe the most important criticism or concern is that it feels like “work” or “works”—a denial of grace and a pursuit of good works that will better our standing before God. This is certainly a danger. I know trying to grow in your spirituality can be exhausting for some, guilt-inducing for others.

But I think it’s good to be aware of spiritually “coasting”—of assuming that all of our preaching of grace or Christ’s sufficiency or our depravity means being a good Christian means simply continually reminding ourselves that God loves us and that his grace covers our sins. I know I definitely need these reminders, but I don’t want to use such glorious truths as excuses to not to take my call to “be holy as Christ is holy” seriously.

I think the spiritual disciplines can help us overcome what might be called “anti-Catholic" sentiments, in light of the ways Luther (aside from all the good he did) and the Reformation have perhaps taught us to assume that Jesus and Paul despised everything about the Jewish Law and thus any efforts to better ourselves and live holy lives, when I’m not so sure that was the point either of them were making in their teachings. I don’t believe Jesus preached that we should reject any call to put effort into becoming more holy because such effort shows we don’t take God’s love and work and grace seriously.

Rather, I believe because of the relationship with God we now have, we are invited to grow in love and character. And in my experience, while I recognize the way God’s Spirit is at work in us and changing us, “growing” in love and character takes some effort—at least for me it does—as there are so many still-existing sinful, evil habits and tendencies within me that make me incapable of love at times—both giving it and receiving it.

Yes, Christ has set us free in some sense. That is both biblical and theological. But free from what? Free for what? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this theme of “freedom” and have actually become a bit suspicious of the way I/we understand it and perhaps overvalue it. I’ll save that for another post, but will at least say this: while I believe God, through Christ, has freed humankind in a way we could not possibly have done ourselves, I think God still desires in some sense to free us from our own personal “hells” and destructive habits—if we are willing.

I believe becoming more disciplined in ways that truly transform me into a better person, a person who more resembles Jesus, is a likely path toward increasing freedom from all the ways I am still “bound.” It is to this end that I pursue the disciplines. I need to be freer and more in touch with God’s love. And others need me to be freer and more in touch with God’s love. God help me.

Are there other criticisms that I haven't thought of? Maybe the spiritual disciplines are too formulaic? Maybe they seem too "me-centered"? Thoughts are welcome.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Marathon Training and the Disciplines

Happy New Year! It doesn’t take much for me to be optimistic, but this time of year seems to bring with it an extra dose of hope and maybe curiosity about what might be, what could be. I’m certainly on the resolution bandwagon, using the changing of one digit as an excuse to think about my goals for the coming months.

I’m still formulating some of my resolutions, I’d say, though Joann and I have discussed some of the resolutions we are considering. My only physical fitness goal is one which I’m not really counting as a new year’s resolution, since it actually began about seven weeks ago. I think I mentioned here that I’m planning on participating in the Olympia marathon in May.

In light of this, I began a training schedule several weeks back that I’ve adhered to religiously, one which is slowly increasing the distance of my runs and thus strengthening and preparing my body (and willpower) for the marathon. It’s taken some commitment and motivation to stick to the schedule, but I’ve done it.

And it’s felt so wonderful to have lived with such discipline in this area of my life. I don’t quite see the six-pack abs yet (forever optimistic about that). But I do notice my body’s strength and endurance to be increasing every week. And I’m happy with the simple fact that I’ve stuck to my schedule. Living with discipline has felt like a victory, and I’m certainly observing the fruits.

So in thinking about “discipline” in recent days, I began thinking about the “spiritual disciplines.” There are probably other helpful lists or groupings of such disciplines, but I’m most familiar with the twelve disciplines about which Richard Foster and Dallas Willard have written extensively. In the same way that it has become easier to run “well” as a result of disciplined training, I am hopeful that the practice of such spiritual disciplines might make it easier to live well—to live the kind of life that is more and more consistent with what I claim to believe.

The end result of my reflection is that I’ve decided to more consciously and intentionally practice these disciplines, possibly focusing on one or two in a given week and finding ways to practice them and incorporate them into my thoughts and routines. I’m not totally sure of my method yet.

I’m surprised and a little disappointed by the amount of criticism out there of such disciplines. I can speak to their importance to me, for sure. And I suspect their importance is tied to some more fundamental understandings about the Christian life that I probably do not share with those who critique them so adamantly. So…I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised.

The primarily disciplines I’ll be focusing on are as follows: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, celebration.

There are several reasons I feel compelled to practice them with more fervency and intentionality in the coming weeks. For one, this particular list is balanced and comprehensive. I kind of consider myself to be “ecclesiastically homeless” in this season of my life. That is to say, I don’t know which denomination really captures my understanding of right theology and practice, and so I feel a bit more ecumenical, despite the apparent contradictions that come from identifying with multiple “tribes.”

That being the case, I’m drawn to models of spiritual formation that can assist God in holistically transforming me, recognizing the wealth of resources in the various streams of Christianity (and outside of Christianity, for that matter) that can assist me in my journey of discipleship to Christ in a way that is not one-sided (e.g., too Catholic, too evangelical, too charismatic, etc.) but rather, comprehensive.

Another reason has to do with the amount of personal study I do in theology. I love learning, and generally have a lot of motivation to read. This has been especially true in recent weeks, as starting a PhD in theology sooner than later is a growing likelihood. I’m already beginning to prepare by devouring as many books as possible that are relevant to the professors, programs, dissertations, or qualifying exams connected to the various PhD options I’m looking into.

And I do try to let the academic reading form me, change me, affect more than just my mind but also my character, values, habits, and actions as well. For me this relationship is important—dipping deep into the well of theology and related subjects while also pursuing what will change not only my opinions but my actions. I need the practical, and the spiritual disciplines are one good resource to assist me toward this end.

A related reason for engaging with the disciplines: I don’t do it simply because I feel called to it, but because of what I understand to be our call and responsibility and witness as a Christian community. To me, to be a Christian means not to be a believer, but a disciple. Am I just being semantically picky here? I don’t think so, given how easily we separate belief from practice, often understanding beliefs as just glorified opinions about something, rather than understanding belief in the sense of active trust, following, identifying with something so closely that its reality transforms us.

I’m not na├»ve to the fact that “Christian” has many definitions, and something or someone can be “Christian” and not think of their Christian identity in terms of discipleship. But I think we miss out on a lot by not taking seriously the call to discipleship.

For me, recognizing the missional character of our identity has been helpful, acknowledging that, whatever caused me to become a Christian—be it because of God, me, my family, my church, my friends, free cookies in the narthex after Sunday worship—part of my call as a Christian is to be a sign, a demonstration, a glimpse to others of the reality of God’s love and goodness and the saving, reconciling work of Christ.

Put differently, I have come to recognize my salvation as not something for my own personal security or peace of mind, but as more of a coming to increasing awareness of who God is, what God has done (and will do), and how God can transform my life now and free me from those habits, patterns of thought, priorities, values, and actions that are more destructive, unholy, and life-sucking than constructive, holy, and life-giving.

I believe God desires to shape me—and all people—into something more fully human, something more like Jesus, and—forgive the possibly abrasive, utilitarian sound of this—but something more useful to God. Becoming more disciplined is something I believe will bring more fulfilling life for me, and will also be more fulfilling for others, as the more free, alive, compassionate, centered, whole, peaceful, aware, joyful, and grateful I am, the more others with whom I interact will benefit.

In ways, some aspects of these practices are already present in my life; but I crave more, and think the structure of disciplined living will prove fruitful. There's definitely room for improvement and growth in my life.

I mentioned above that many are critical of an attempt to practice spiritual disciplines; I’ll share some of those criticisms and my responses in a couple days.

Ran a 10-miler yesterday, shooting for 11 next weekend!