Enjoyment and Everything Else

Unapologetic is currently my new favorite book. I like it because the author, Francis Spufford, acknowledges the intellectual tensions (doubts even?) inherent in faith. Instead of solving those tensions with clever mind tricks, he offers an emotional case for faith in Jesus. For the next few posts I’ll be interacting with his book. I want to say up front that the book resonates with me, but I don’t agree with everything Sufford says (how could I? I didn’t write the book). Some of it I’m not sure about, and that’s partly why I want to interact with it. So here goes – Unapologetic Part 1 – Enjoyment and Everything Else

 In my experience, it’s belief that involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable. It’s belief which demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires continual, fluffy pretending…Take the famous slogan on the atheist bus in London…“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”…I’m sorry – enjoy your life? Enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product; … Only sometimes, when you’re being lucky, will you stand in a relationship to what’s happening to you where you’ll gaze at it with warm, approving satisfaction. The rest of the time, you’ll be busy feeling hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion and the rest…The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren’t being “worried” by us believers and our hellfire preaching. pp.7-8

When I first saw those signs on London busses, I felt a small amount of outrage too. But I was focused on the ‘probably no God’ claim. Spufford, on the other hand, gives ground to the atheist claim, if only to point out the absurdity of it. Ok, maybe you’re right – there probably isn’t a God. Who can prove it, anyway? But what does that leave you with? Life doesn’t magically get better. It’s still pretty bad, actually. Only if we pretend to ignore everything around us can we trick ourselves into believing life is primarily about enjoyment. That is the real act of faith.

And like the atheists and their bus, it’s an act I’ve pulled many times. And I’m not alone on this side of the pond (maybe I should have mentioned up front: Spufford lives in Britain). The entire American project buys into the same nonsense. Our declaration of independence from the British crown says that humans have been given three inalienable rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. At least there’s an acknowledgement that happiness needs to be pursued, that it the default state of things. But please – if life’s goal is to pursue happiness, then I’m a miserable failure at least 75% of the time, and I bet you are too if you’re honest. Because happiness isn’t the point. Enjoyment isn’t the point. They are one of the many emotions that encompass a full and fruitful human life.

Spufford points out that if enjoyment is the point, then we’re all missing the point of life most of the time, God or no God. Emotionally, belief in God doesn’t really impact enjoyment of life in the moment one way or the other. But it does hold out hope. Hope that the atheist slogan crushes and leaves choking in a cloud of exhaust as the bus drives away.  “What the atheist bus says is: there’s no help coming…It amounts to a denial of hope…”

So what do you think? Is the purpose of life to enjoy it? Does God hinder or help that enjoyment? What if there isn’t a God – does that make all the misery in the world disappear? Have you bought into the lie that enjoyment is all there is?

Getting Outside the Doors

It’s a bit ironic that this post comes after a months-long hiatus from blogging (unintentional, I assure you – I just didn’t have anything I wanted to write).  Ironic, because it goes back to why I started writing in the first place, and why I called this place ‘outside the door’.  In an interview earlier today with local public radio station WYPR, the Artistic Director at Baltimore’s Center Stage theater, Kwame Kwei-Armah, mentioned a program that brings Center Stage productions to prisons and homeless shelters. He said that the program is designed to take art out of the building and bring it to people who wouldn’t ordinarily come inside the theater. By itself, a pretty cool idea. But, being the church guy that I am, I also immediately thought of parallels between Center Stage’s efforts, and attempts by the church to get outside of her doors and meet people where they are.

I heard a statistic recently that 82% of people in America would not come inside a church building. The implication is that if the church believes that Jesus has something to offer people through us, then we have to go outside our buildings in order to connect with the majority of those people. We have to take Jesus outside the building.

And in some ways, that’s kinda what Jesus did when he was here. He traveled from place to place; certainly teaching in synagogues when the opportunity was there – but also teaching in a boat, on a mountaintop, in homes and places of business. He met people on the road and in the towns where they lived. He went into their homes…and yes, occasionally had people break into someone else’s home to get to him.

It shouldn’t surprise us that 82% of people say they wouldn’t come inside a church. I mean, really, why would they want to?   Apart from a few structures with minor historical interest, most church buildings are not remarkable. I hope 82% of people who don’t know me wouldn’t feel comfortable getting a random invite to come into my house either – I actually hope that number is closer to 100%. And this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon – people like the Wesleys and George Whitefield in the 1700s knew that they had to go outside the walls of their buildings if they wanted most people to hear their message.

But it is a good reminder that most people in our communities are not going to be found inside our buildings. The majority of people never come inside our churches. So if we want to connect with them, it has to happen where they already are. And that makes sense, right? People who do come into my home are friends that I have made when I’m outside of it – classmates and coworkers and random crazies at the bar (you know who you are). So thanks to Center Stage for taking art to those who can’t come inside the theater. It’s a good reminder for us in the church to get outside our buildings too.

Lament for the World I Know

lament

Have you ever noticed how much time and energy we spend trying to keep ourselves safe from other people? Both as individuals and as a society, we assume that somebody, somewhere, is out to get us, and we have to do something to stop them. We lock our cars and our front doors; we install panic buttons in our classrooms; we teach our kids how to call the police. We employ vast numbers of people to police our cities, defend our borders, and protect our interests abroad. We may argue over the right means of protecting ourselves, but the assumption is that we do need protection from other people. (For example, the gun control debate is about how to regulate the type of weapons people can have, not about whether people need some way to defend themselves). Even the virtual world of computers is filled with ‘bad guys’, as evidenced by the fact that companies can’t seem to hire and train cyber-security experts fast enough.

My individual life has been relatively free from violence. Apart from the occasional fight as a school-boy and a few petty thefts here and there, I’ve had it pretty easy. But I live in a country that has engaged in violent conflict on at least eight separate occasions on four continents in my lifetime. My children have lived their whole lives under America’s ‘War on Terror’. War is given. There is never a question of whether we need to employ, train, and equip some of our citizens to kill citizens of other countries – the debate only seems to be around when to deploy, and how much to spend on equipping them. The violence of our world is undeniable.

A favorite slogan of gun-rights advocates is: Guns don’t kill people – people kill people. While there may be truth to that slogan, have we ever stepped back to think how irrational, insane, and horrible it is that people kill people? Animals kill other animals to survive. But there is no rational reason why one human should ever kill another. Humans killing other humans is not a necessity for survival, or even for enjoyment of a full life. We kill because we are broken people who live in a world ravaged by evil. Even in the case of self-defence, violence is only a secondary necessity, made unavoidable by the violence of another; ‘it’s either him or me’ is only true if one of you is unwilling to walk away and let the other live.

I guess this is more of a lament than anything else. It makes me sad that so much of life is spent having to defend and plan for the reality of evil. And I’m not immune to the influence of evil in my own heart – I’m part of the problem too. I have been reading in the Old Testament book of Joel recently. Joel 3:10 encourages the hearers to make weapons out of farming tools and come and do battle. Not because fighting is good, but because God is about to respond violently to evil. But Joel gives only a partial picture of God’s response to evil in the world.  The prophets Isaiah and Micah paint the opposite picture, of a day when swords will be turned into plowshares. And we only discover that this latter vision of the future wins the day when we see that Jesus is God’s ultimate violent response to evil. Jesus takes God’s violent response to human violence on himself in order to put an end to all violence and guarantee a future where nobody has to fear anybody else.

So, what if armies and war and locked doors are only a temporary necessity? What if gun ownership is less an eternal right and more a temporary sad reality of our world? What would it mean to long for the day when there will be no more guns on earth, when all weapons are melted down to make works of art and tools for cultivating the earth? Can we even imagine a world where everyone can be trusted and nobody is out to get you; where you can plant a garden and not be afraid that someone will steal from it, or build a house and not worry that someone will break into it; where our daughters and sons are safe and violence is unknown? It’s hard for me to imagine that world. I know I want to, though.

Confessions of an ‘Always-On’ Worker

lightstock_179852_xsmall_user_3911910I saw a commercial last night that made me angry. Before I tell you why and you write me off as a basher of all things capitalism, let me say this: I like being an American consumer as much as the next guy: I buy clothes because they’re on sale at Banana Republic (not because I need them), I have multiple pairs of running shoes that all serve the same purpose, I eat food that I like whether it’s good for me or not, and while my car would never be mistaken as ‘flashy’, it is fairly new. So I have bought into ‘the system’. But there are some aspects of the American way that I find unhealthy, and sometimes commercials give us a brilliant and unpleasant insight into our collective heart. This TD Ameritrade commercial is one of them.

The basic premise is that a TD Ameritrade investment advisor is willing to talk to her clients any time of day, no matter what else she’s doing. Running errands, working out, playing with her son, even getting into bed with her husband. It would be one thing if this was portrayed as a woman having an incredibly hard day – I get it, we all have days where work can’t be left alone and there always seems to be more of it. But the message being sent is that this is the standard level of service offered by TD Ameritrade. I don’t fault the company, they’re just tapping into something they see in us – we expect the people working for us to be working all the time. And that’s because we expect ourselves to be working all the time too.

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in their book When Helping Hurts point out that all humans experience a break in four relationships: with God, with creation, with other people, and with ourselves. Americans tend to see our lives through the lens of economics: each day the news reports gains/losses on Wall Street, and we even call people ‘consumers’. We see working hard as good – you’re contributing to the economy – and the harder you work, the better. The problem is that having a job doesn’t heal my relationship with God or others. In fact, having a job where I get no down time and constantly have to interrupt game-time with my children or bed-time with my spouse is just as much a symptom of the brokenness of my world as not having a job. The expectation that work is non-stop is often rooted in the need to find identity in our work.

I wasn’t angry with TD Ameritrade, I was angry with my culture for telling me the lie that work is my identity.  I was angry with myself for believing it.  The other day I was driving in the car, feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work on my plate, and I thought “Ok, I can’t take on any more.  I can’t fit anything else into my schedule.  Finally, I feel like I’m working hard enough.”  For a long time, I had been feeling like I wasn’t doing enough…but now, when I felt like I was at a breaking point and couldn’t possibly fit anything else in, I thought it was ‘enough’.  I was finding identity in my work, and the rest of my life and some of my relationships were suffering because of it.  But I was working ‘enough’.  That’s scary.

Jesus offers a different view of work, one that flows out of healed relationship with him. He says ‘Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ I don’t think he’s saying ‘stop working hard’. Instead he’s inviting us to find our identity in him. To let work be something that we do well because of who we are in Him, and to be something that we rest from, because it does not define us.  I need to remember that.  Sometimes it takes a TV commercial to remind me.

When Civility Becomes Ultimate

 

Two girl resolving a conflictI recently moved to Howard County, Maryland. Yes, that’s right – this suburbanite transplant to the city has returned to his roots. There are many things I love about my new neighborhood: people walking/running at all hours of the day and night, tall trees shading the sun, and discovering all the people that I already know who live nearby. If you’ve ever driven through Howard County, you know that our unofficial motto is Choose Civility. The green and white bumper-stickers are everywhere.

 

So when did civility become the ultimate goal of our existence? The answer, apparently, is sometime in 2007. That was the year the Howard County library system started the Choose Civility campaign. The aim of the campaign is an admirable one, and just like last week’s article, I’m not so much concerned with picking on the campaign as I am using it to highlight something about the human condition. It began as a response to a perceived lack of civility in society, and its aim was to expose the harmful nature of bullying in school, the workplace, and online, and to help young people (and adults too) learn better ways of interacting with each other. The campaign runs seminars, organizes Choose Civility Week, and distributes the ubiquitous car magnets. It’s even spreading to other places in the country.

Is civility the best we can do?

But for me, Choose Civility begs the question: Is civility the best we can do? I was sharing with the high-school group at our church last night, and we were talking about the reactions when classmates reveal that they are gay or lesbian. One of the girls mentioned that tolerance was the ultimate value – as long as you accept the person, you’re cool, but if you question their values, you are ostracized, shouted down, and condemned as intolerant. It occurred to me that the obsession with civility that exists in the culture these kids are living in may actually make it harder for them to respond and engage with classmates around deeply personal issues like sexuality.

One of the best one-liners I ever heard (and I don’t even remember who said it…somebody help me out if you know) is that relationship requires conflict. If I am in relationship with someone, we are going to have conflict, because we are, by definition, different from each other (otherwise I would be in relationship with a clone of myself, and while that makes for good sci-fi films, it doesn’t work in real life). The emphasis on civility prevents kids from moving toward each other into deeper relationship by teaching them to avoid conflict over things that matter. Hear me on this: I’m not at all advocating condemnation of a gay classmate – far from it. I just think we can do a lot better than civility or tolerance. In fact, I think if we bag the whole civility thing and start honestly sharing the real mess of our lives, we’ll be less focused on the things we disagree with in our friends’ lives, and more focused on letting them see the ways we fail to live up to our own values. As followers of Jesus, that is, after all, the point. We believe God wants us to live a certain way – and we fail to do it all the time.

God does not tolerate sinners.

Does that sound less than civil? I think it probably is. Because in the Bible it says that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners. That’s not tolerance. That’s love. God gives his son Jesus in order to embrace sinners. Don’t be mistaken – this isn’t a divine rubber stamp giving approval to our sin. God embraces sinners in order to recreate us. He doesn’t leave us where he finds us.

While civility calls us to focus on the good and to affirm without judgment, God’s embrace of sinners allows us to see the worst in ourselves, to own it, and to find redemption in Jesus. And this open and honest assessment of ourselves can form the basis for real and deep relationship for others, as we move towards them fully aware of the mess that we are all in together.

Because let’s be honest: Who among us is satisfied with our present state? Do we really want to be told “Everything about you is fine and good” when we know the opposite to be true? Isn’t it far better to acknowledge that we have much that needs to change and move towards each other in relationship that honestly sees each other for who we are – the imperfect, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful?

I’ll say it again: Is civility the best we can do? As for me, I’ll take relationship over civility any day.

Why Mazda Has Us Pegged

I recently saw an advertisement for the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata that I think taps into something dark in all of us. Not that I’m blaming Mazda – the ad is a good one, and they are simply responding to what they see. But I think it’s a good window into what goes on in our hearts.

The commercial opens with a young man learning to drive and getting his license. He buys what looks like a used Miata and has lots of fun with it. We follow him as he ages, gets married and has a family. With the changes in life, his car needs change, and Mazda is there with models to fit. Finally, his kids are older and he buys himself a new Miata. The commercial ends with a line that says the new Miata “reminds you of when you were you.”

What Makes You You

The implication is that his life has come full circle, and he is free to focus on himself again, so he buys the car he loves, not the car he needs. In that sense, it probably fits the experience of a lot of people, and certainly is a great selling point for the new Miata. But the idea that you’re only you when you can focus on yourself is a dangerous one. Again, I’m not faulting Mazda for this – they are just exposing what’s in all of us.

Why is it that we think responsibility for children makes us less than our true selves? Why do we treat marriage as if it ties us down, preventing us from living to our full potential? Because we assume that the truest expression of ourselves is the version of us that’s free to do as we please – free from responsibility; independent. This is the darkness that Mazda sees. The desire to define ourselves as we please, without relationship to others and without responsibilities except for ourselves.

Dangerous Identity

But this is a dangerous path. The reality is that we were made to be in relationship, and we only find our true selves in relationship with other people. We were made to have responsibilities, and it is in the performing of those responsibilities that we find out who we are. Jesus said that anyone who wishes to find his life must lose it – must give it away to others. The guy in the Mazda commercial became more himself when he had children, not less. The fact that he had to consider someone other than himself in his car purchasing decision draws him closer to who he was made to be – a dependent being (dependent on God, and dependent on others, even as others depend on him).

So what do you think? Can you relate to feeling stifled under the weight of responsibility and relationship? Ever want to just throw it all off and get back to ‘when you were you’? You’re not alone – that’s why Mazda made the commercial, and why it’s been watched over 5 million times on YouTube. But the solution is not to buy a car (that might help a little, for a while,); and neither is it to buck up and try harder to do your responsibilities well. The solution is to find your identity in Jesus, the one who gave up all regard for his own well-being in order to bring you life. This allows you to find your true self in the midst of whatever responsibilities and whatever relationships God has placed you in.

 

Caitlyn, Rachel, and the Gospel of Identity

I will give...a new name
I will give…a new name

“Like it or not, we have entered into an era … when people expect that one has a right and dignity to claim the identity of one’s choice.”

So says Camille Gear Rich, law professor at USC and author of a fascinating op-ed piece for CNN in which she compares the conflicted response to Rachel Dolezal’s outing as a white woman with the largely positive response to the Caitlyn Jenner reveal. What’s interesting to me is the way Rich takes for granted the notion that our identity can and should be self-created. She ends her article with this sentence: “We should not have to be slaves to the biological definition of identity, and we should not use race or gender identities as weapons to punish one another.” While I agree that race and gender should not be, but often are, used as weapons, I do not think that self-created identities are the answer. Partly because people are people, and no matter how our identity is crafted, others will find ways to hurt us. But more importantly, I believe the Christian story has a lot to say about our identity and how it’s formed, and that story is quite different and in my opinion offers greater hope than the one told by Professor Rich.

On the one hand, the good news of Jesus says that we do not have to be stuck in society’s boxes. Others’ perception of us does not define us. Our identity is not locked into what the world around us tells us we must be. The hurts, the rejection, the pain is not the sum total of who we are. The color of skin we are born with does not lock us into a particular way of relating to God. Our gender does not restrict us to only certain levels of achievement or status in God’s kingdom.

But neither are we the masters of our own identity. Not because we aren’t free; but because we are not up to the task. If we had the last word in defining who we are, we’d be just as trapped as if we let social convention define us. Trapped by our own misperceptions and poor judgments, we are bound to repeat on ourselves the same harmful mistakes those around us make when they mis-identify us. We are not as good at defining ourselves as we think. We do not get the final word in saying who we are, or who we become, and that’s a good thing.

The Christian hope is that we are given an identity by one who knows us better than we know ourselves, and loves us more deeply than we can imagine. At the very end of the Bible, in the Revelation of St. John, Jesus says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” Jesus affirms our culture’s sense that identity is a deeply personal, individual thing. Only I will know the name he gives me. But at the same time, he confronts the notion that I get to choose whatever identity I want.  He is the one who gives me my name.

This is good news for people like Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal. The gender stereotypes and racial norms that have caused them pain do not get the final say. Jesus knows them even better than they know themselves, and offers them a name that is completely, 100% true to who they are.

Really, this is good news for all of us. Though I haven’t faced the same things as Caitlyn or Rachael, I do struggle to live up to the various names I’m given by those around me: Father, Husband, Pastor, Friend…I’m painfully aware that I often fail to live up to those names.  I do not fully embrace them the way I should, nor do I feel that any of them on their own is a completely accurate picture of who I am.  When I try to create my own identity, those names I give myself are not my true name either: creative, runner, smart, lazy, fearful, sinner, nerd, awkward. Some of those names are a piece of who I am, some are true but not the final word, and some are just plain wrong. But all of them leave me feeling disoriented if I embrace them as my truest self, because my true name is known only to God. One day, he will reveal it to me too. And in the meantime, my search for identity will always come up short if I rely on myself to define who I am.  Society cannot accurately define me, but the solution is not an identity of my own choosing.