Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Ways that I Lose My Faith

I seem to be losing my faith quite frequently these days. And by losing my faith I don't mean my salvation. I mean my daily reliance on Jesus. 

For example, when I ask God to change someone and I see no change despite fervent prayer, I grow impatient and lose my faith. Turns out I had been believing in a God that would change people the way I thought they ought to be changed, a God fashioned after my own liking with my ideals and my plans. I feel suspended over thin air, realizing the platform on which I was standing is not there anymore. I feel God is not there anymore, and indeed I am right. That god, the false one, was never there.

This is how our faith is tested, and by testing I mean the same thing as a mathematician testing a coordinate to see if it is the solution of a function, or graphing a set of coordinates to see if they fall on a line. Or—if the mathematical illustrations mean nothing to you—it is like baking the dough to see if you’ve added enough yeast, or trying out a new medication to see if it helps the rash go away.

You see, we all of us have a particular image of God in mind when we say our prayers or think of the one who purchased our salvation at the price of his son’s blood, and that image must be refashioned after every disappointment, sorrow, and fear. Without the refashioning, we either begin creating a god after our own likeness or we turn our backs on God entirely like the prodigal son did. 

But perhaps the prodigal son is actually closer to God than the one who continues with his false religion. The prodigal knows his will can’t bend to God’s so he runs away to spend his, and by his I mean God's, resources as he wishes. On the other hand, the one making a false god believes his will is God’s. The prodigal is not far from realizing how inadequate he is without the Lord; the one in a false religion thinks he, unlike all those sinners, is pleasing the Lord.

As for the man who sees that he is suspended over thin air, who sees that he is believing in a false god and chooses to discarded that image, he is transformed by the renewal of his mind, and through testing he discerns what the will of God is (Romans 12:2).

Let me cite another scenario in which I lose my faith. Phil and my back-house studio is vacant. We have a laundry list of action items to complete before the next renter comes in June. We don't have this month's rental income supporting us. Phil’s and my cars both ended up in the shop, and at the start of the month I was too sick to do any work. Phil and I are overwhelmed and exhausted. We don’t know how we'll complete all our work or stay out of the red financially. I grow anxious and short-tempered. I lose my faith. 

Or here is another example: I attended an interview with the principal of Lou Henry Hoover Elementary where Lee will be attending kindergarten next fall, and I was shocked and distraught to learn that the principal wished to put Lee into first grade instead of kindergarten because I held him back last year. I exited the meeting frantic and angry, and went on a rampage rudely venting on school district employees in an attempt to get what I wanted. I lost my faith. 

In the first situation, I feel inadequate to the tasks at hand. In the second sintuation, I was feeling unjustly treated and afraid of the future.

How frequently I lose my faith that a situation is within God’s scope, that he is prepared to take care of these things too, that he is the one to bring about justice and to give good to his people.

Not too long ago I was reading Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis, a gal who fresh out of high school felt called by God to serve in Uganda. Her service there lead to founding the non-profit organization Amazima, adopting thirteen girls, and residing in Uganda permanently. During a fund raising trip to the states, she became overwhelmed with worry about her girls back home.

“I had become so concerned about how I would continue to provide for the children that I forgot I wasn’t even the one who was supposed to do it. I’d been so busy working to raise money that I forgot to ask God for it.” (Davis, 126)

“I keep forgetting to ask God first to heal me, to fill me, to guide me, to rejoice with me. I have to set aside ‘time to pray’ in the morning and at night instead of being in constant communication with him. In Uganda because I was so physically ‘poor’ I was completely dependent on God and spiritually as wealthy as ever.” (Davis, 122)

Reading this was a spotlight on my faithlessness, not only because I hadn’t brought my financial and parental fears to the Lord, but because even in prayer, I was expecting the Lord to deliver in a certain way. Was my faith placed in what God would do or in God himself? I wanted the Lord to help us complete our tasks and supply the extra money and get Lee into kindergarten. Could I still have faith in God if we didn’t finish on time, if our accounts went into the red, and Lee wasn’t permitted into kindergarten?

“You know that under pressure your faith life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. Don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed not deficient in anyway” (James 1:3-4 Message).

Again, in what sort of God did I believe? Was it in a God whose plans matched mine, one who gave me all I wanted, a false god fashioned after my own desires? No, I knew that God was not bound to orchestrate events according to my will.

It's a tell-tale sign that my prayers are faithless when I pray them in fear. I beg God, “Please, do this! Please, please, please. I need this! I must have this! I don’t know what I’ll do without this!”  These are the sort of prayers said with no faith that the maker will take take of me. I am “like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8 ESV).

I lose my faith. 

Again, I have three options: transfer my faith onto the real God whose plans might not be to my liking, flee from this God and his undesirable plans, or follow after a false god. Too frequently I choose the last option. I decide to shoulder the burdens on my own with the belief that God doesn’t care or God helps those who help themselves or that God will step in once I’ve proved my worth. But this is not the God of the bible. It's one created after my own flaws. God cares. He is able to do anything if I trust him. And he is not waiting for me to prove my worth. Chance are if I complete all my tasks myself, I will probably then believe I have earned God’s favor and that now God owes me some easy living or a bit of entertainment or a night's rest without a child interrupting my sleep.

I do not mean that by giving up my hopes for the future and renewing my faith in God that I then sit back and wait for God to get Lee into kindergarten and prepare the studio for the coming renters. But I do mean that any effort I make is done with a newfound rest and delight. I am no longer fretting and fearing that if I don’t do things right, I won’t get what I want. I know the responsibility of making things happen “correctly” is not up to me. There is no fault upon me if things don't go as I like or in a socially acceptable manner.

I take each task every day—scrubbing the studio floor, ordering curtains, selling items on ebay, requesting recommendation letters from Lee’s previous preschool teachers—with prayer. “Lord, is this the task you would have me do today or should I rest to heal from my sickness?” “Lord, please help me be open to Lee going into first grade.” “Lord, should I focus on selling items on ebay or trying to paint the studio?” “Lord, is it really necessary that we re-grout the shower and if not, help me to be at peace with the way things are.”

That is what the Bible means when it says to walk by faith and not by sight, to live in Christ, “to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you,” (Philippians 2:12-13). 

By the way, Lee was permitted into kindergarten after an entrance test, letters of recommendation, a local school council meeting, and several months of suspense. Phil landed five side jobs and I discovered that Mike Hamilton's Kenner Star Wars action figures that he'd given me to sell were worth hundreds. And while Phil and I have yet to finish preparing our studio, we are taking one task at a time, in faith.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Monterey 2018

It's been two years since we visited Ed and Barb at their home in Pacific Grove, Monterey, and the children had been asking for another visit, so we put that on our calendar for this month. Despite coming down with a cold followed by a painful ear infection, I somehow managed to pack up the children and myself and grab some antibiotics at Urgent Care before leaving for our trip.

Taking a vacation with two kids while being 30 weeks pregnant and sick was a new experience. My left ear was plugged for the duration of the trip, and my energy was at an all-time low. Despite that, the vacation was the most restful one I've had since the welcoming of Lee into our family.

Things I would normally fuss about—knowing and planning our events and meals, taking pictures at every stop, kids whining in the car, noisy children bothering restaurant guests, forgetting my tea and deodorant, keeping track of all our belongings, making sure we're driving the right direction—fell by the wayside because I didn't have the energy to worry about them. When we set up our folding chairs on the beach, I wasn't bored or antsy without a book or journal. I was content to just sit and watch the children play. I left my computer at home and my phone in the car. I was too tired to take pictures and my brain felt too mushy to cough up any thoughts to record in my journal. I simply rested. And it was lovely.

I ought to add that without Philip and Ed and Barb, all this relaxing wouldn't have been possible. Phil checked us in and out of Cambria Pines Lodge. He loaded and unloaded the car. He took the children on outings so I could nap. He took pictures and coordinated a breakfast with Luke Shakelford. He acted as the enforcer of rules and the face behind the fun for the children. He handled our vacation schedule and budget as well.

Then Ed and Barb stepped in with outing suggestions and aquarium passes and meals and a love for us and our children that made us feel right at home. They watched the children one morning so Phil and I could grab breakfast at Monterey's First Awakenings. Phil and Ed took the kids to Dennis the Menace Park, and Barb made us sandwiches for a picnic on the beach. They supplied the kids with age-appropriate toys and enough Doc Mcstuffin and sugar to last them the rest of the year.

The children were great travelers this time round. I'm so encouraged to see how each year they become easier to take places. In the car they sat quietly listening to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle or A Series of Unfortunate Events. They drew on their doodle pads, which were a travel gift from Auntie Terri several years ago. Rose dressed her magnetic doll and Lee found Waldo. They indulged in Cheetos and fruit leather and PB&J bars from Trader Joes. And even though we still had to stop for the restroom every hour or so, I welcomed the bathroom pit stops too.

We spent one night at Cambria Pines Lodge, stopping at Padaro Beach Grill on the way up. This year Phil secured us a corner room with a forest view and a living room separate from the bedroom. I don't know why we haven't requested this prior years. That was definitely the way to go. After putting the kids to bed, Phil and I could stay up an entire thirty minutes before we too conked out. That's luxury right there.

Highlights included rock hopping at Moonstone Beach, the children wading through neck-high  nasturtiums at the Cambria Pines Lodge kitchen garden, the yellow mustard so vibrant and the oaks so majestic along highway 46, spotting dead jelly fish on the sandy beach, picking up hermit grabs and touching sea "enemies" at the tide pools, homemade meat loaf and asparagus at Ed and Barb's, watching the sea otter video and standing in the splash tunnel at the aquarium, spotting a doe and her fawn in Ed and Barb's front yard, watching the children perform somersaults on the fake turf in their front yard, Ed tossing fancy shells onto the rocks for Lee and Rose to find, acquiring a list of book suggestions from Barb, Ed playing Guess Who with Lee, Rose's delight at collecting colorful pebbles, sipping cool kombucha on the beach, listening to Lee explain to newcomers what fish were swimming in the open ocean display at the aquarium, children in their underwear leaping from the rocks, watching the train go by at Padaro Beach Grill, hearing how Lee would've defeated the snow monster in Frozen, sleeping in until 7am almost every morning, Phil doing a load of laundry at Ed and Barbs, the children's excitement when showing Ed and Barb our 2017 family movie, being content with only hearing half of what's going on, and Lee expressing that he was so excited to go home because he missed his blankets and bed.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Pros of Being Pregnant

1. Elderly ladies smile sweetly at me.
2. Strangers know exactly how to start up a conversation.
3. I don't need to explain my frequent bathroom visits or chocolate binging.
4. People understand my need to sit down.
5. I can quietly observe the children rough housing without joining in.
6. Friends and family always ask how I'm feeling.
7. Doctors ask me all sorts of caring questions and want to see me often and measure me.
8. I can eat normal-sized meals without feeling full and still have room for dessert.
9. I don't worry about bloated days.
10. I have a whole new set of clothes given to me by friends and family.
11. Being cute means being huge.
12. My children talk to my tummy.
13. Sitting around and putting my feet up is considered taking care of myself.
14. I'm seized by the urge to get rid of excess stuff.
15. Friends offer me their extra baby equipment.
16. The children offer me their name suggestions: Lee-Lee and Duegoo and Shnee
17. People hold the door open for me and offer to carry things for me.
18. Weight gain is normal.
19. My baby likes to inform me of his presence with pokes throughout the day.
20. I don't have to feed the baby or change the baby or hear the baby crying yet.
21. Staring at my stomach's movement is a form of entertainment.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Why Church Was Not For Me

I used to rate church on Sundays based on several things.

1) Did I feel drawn closer to God through a particular song in the worship service?
2) Did something the pastor say stir me to action or conviction or repentance or enlightenment?
3) Did anyone take particular notice of me by asking me questions or complimenting me or showing interest in what I had to say?
4) Did I shed light on any group discussions by pointing out something that everyone else had failed to see?
5) Did I supply someone with some help?
6) Did I steer all small talk towards deeper, more soul-altering conversations?

If I was able to answer two or more of these questions in the affirmative, I usually thought the Sunday was relatively successful. But if no one took any interest in me, and I made a fool of myself in a group discussion, if my mind wandered in the sermon and I found all the songs more annoying than worshipful, then I went home brooding and full of angst.

The pastor should have used more examples to keep his audience engaged. All that chit-chat with super-smiley, super-made-up ladies after the service just goes to show you that no one was affected by the sermon because if they had been convicted, they wouldn't have been discussing the weather or where they bought their outfit. They would've turned to one another and began discussing how they were now going to go and do likewise. And I can't believe I listened to that long-winded lady talk about her garden for fifteen minutes. She never once asked me a single question about my life. She's so self-centered.

I now recognize several things.

1) By waiting for the music to match my mood, I was allowing my lazy and gluttonous spirit to prevent me from worshipping someone greater than myself.
2) By expecting a passionate, intellectual, and applicable sermon, I was missing the small and simple reminders in the message. To remember where I have come from and to where I am going.
3) By expecting others to take particular notice of me, I was relying on my fellow-church goers to make me feel loved or important.
4) By hoping to bring wisdom to group discussions, I was believing that my understanding was far superior to others and that their simple contributions weren't valuable.
5) By thinking it was my job to give someone advice, I thought that I had the power to change them.
6) And by trivializing small talk, I was merely hiding my disinterestedness in others behind a facade of spiritual snobbery.

There was no trying to "fix" my attitude towards church. When I tried to be selfless—that is listening to others talk about things of which I didn't care—I always came away feeling depleted and resentful and wondering why others didn't notice my sacrifices. And when I kept my mouth shut in group discussions, I felt like a plugged volcano listening to the seemingly foolish and off-topic things that others said. And while I was able to keep myself from criticizing the service by working on my to-do list or reading the bible quietly to myself, that didn't really seem like the right thing to do.

Like I said, there was no "fixing" my attitude. But then again, no one gets fixed through effort. We can only be fixed when we've completely depleted our own moral efforts, after all our tricks have failed and disguises worn out. It is only when we come to the very end of our own attempts that we say, "I cannot do it. You must." Only then does the Lord do the heavy lifting.

Selflessness. Love for others. That is the trick to benefiting and enjoying church. A selfless person sees church as a place to listen. They see it as a privilege, a powerful force, a place to remember, a chance to know and learn from other's faith. But a self-centered person hates church because church seems to spotlight their selfishness in a most uncomfortable manner.

Now this spotlight could be a very good thing, if it brings a person to cast themselves at Jesus' feet and say, "I'm terrible. I can't do this. Help!" But if the uncomfortable feelings drive a person away from the cure, it is a tragedy. They were so close to asking for help. They were so close to Jesus and a life of real love.

It is this love for others that can't be contrived or manufactured or faked. When we fake it, we keep track of things and grow bitter and resentful and exhausted. But when it's produced from within us, that is, we ask and believe that Jesus can do it within us, it's genuine and easy and natural. Alone, we are incapable of this kind of love. It only comes when we invite the Lord to do it within us.

The steps go like this:
1) Try as hard as you can to follow Jesus' commands to love one another.
2) When you find you can't, give up.
3) Believe that Christ can do it in you.
4) Ask him to do it.
5) Watch as he generates this new love in you from a new heart.
6) Begin to understand why church is for you.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Character Study: Ashley Emerson


Mantra: “I make music, fiction, and lots of mistakes.”


Trusted Carryall: A drawstring bag where she keeps all her essentials so switching purses is easy (1)  


Purse of Choice: Brown Tote by Constanza Rota (2)

Signature Scent: Replica, Jazz Club by Maison Margiela. (Shhh . . . it's actually a male scent.)

Everyday Shoe: Mark Fisher Limited brown suede boots (3) 

Every Home Should Have: "A teapot, any teapot will do."

Oldest Possession: Play jewelry and scans of fashion drawings from her great aunt

Collectibles: When she was young, she used to collect sand dollars and junior ranger stamps on camping trips.


Favorite App: Audible (4): a free audiobook app. She pays a monthly subscription to get books as well as audiobooks.

Favorite Flower: "Gluten free . . . just kidding . . . succulents."

Repeated Read: Journey of Souls (5) by C.D. Baker, a historical-fiction novel about three siblings from Germany in the 13th century

Place to Shop: T. J. Max. She loves the quality and variety as their merchandise changes all the time.

Favorite Color Combo: Earth tones and dark gray

Pet: If she had a pet, it would be a small black poodle named Sherlock. (6)


On her playlist: Back in Black by AC/DC, La Grange by ZZ top, Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin, My Boy by Billie Eilish

Where She'd Love to go Next: L’Abri in Switzerland: a Christian philosophy camp where you make all your own food and at night you discuss matters of the soul (7)

Cooking: Zucchini muffins

Breakfast: Eating breakfast takes too much time. Just a coffee with cream and sugar followed by an early lunch.

Show: If she had time to watch something right now, she'd watch the Netflix show The 100 about teens sent from space to a post-apocalyptic earth. (8)


On Her nightstand: The side of her desk serves as a nightstand. On it sits lip balm, a coaster, a Sandalwood candle, and a dead plant.

Her Confidant: Her mom

To Unwind: She drinks mint tea, sits in front of the fire, and thinks.

Her Secret Weapon: Research, she could do it for days.

Life Hack: She doesn’t use a wallet, just a big binder clip to keep her cards together (9)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

What to Do When You Discover You Didn't Marry Superman

Step One: 
Don't panic. You are merely adjusting to how you relate to your new surroundings, much like having to adjust to walking on the moon. Turns out you were living in a dreamland, and this is merely the cold shock of reality overcoming you. You didn't marry superman. Given time, you will be able to navigate this terrain. For now, say this ten times to yourself, "No man is superman but Jesus."

Step Two: 
Don't fall into the trap of thinking your husband is exceptionally pathetic or grossly sinful. If all of men's flaws were put on display, you would see quite clearly how your husband's are rather common. You have a single window into a single man's heart. Do not fret. No blemish, quirk, or sin is too trivial or too great for God's notice and care. God cares that you are irritated.

Step Three: 
Do not abuse the privilege of insight into your husband's heart by putting his flaws on display for your girlfriends. You would be mortified if your husband put your physical blemishes on display for his man friends. If complaints are always on your mind, chances are they will inadvertently bleed out in your speech. The trick to keeping complaints out of your speech is to keep them out of your mind. And the trick to keeping them out of your mind is to set your mind on other things. Begin a daily list of all the ways your husband is a blessing. When you find yourself thinking about how your husband did something wrong, ask God to stop your thoughts and then deliberately choose to list what your husband has done right that day. Example: woke up on time, showered, dressed himself, went to work, etc.

Step Four: 
By all means, find better systems to living. If you were hired as the personal secretary to a CEO, and much to your chagrin, the CEO kept calling you "Toots," do politely ask him to stop. Likewise, if the CEO has a terrible filing system, help him sort things out. Learn to work the company more efficiently and with the utmost respect and courtesy. Truth be told, the company would fall apart without you. And you are there to make it not just function better but grow.

Step Five: 
Do not be tempted to return to your dreamland with statements like: "Is it too much to ask . . . " and "All I want is . . . " Chances are, even if he did learn to perform that task correctly, you would then focus on his next imperfection. The reality is you are discontented with anything except perfection from him while you extend grace and patience to yourself. Do not be shocked that you love yourself more than him. We are all born selfish. Yes, this news can be alarming to those of us who thought we were better. Tell yourself and God this reality and then remember that God doesn't love you based on your merit but the merit earned through Jesus' perfect life and death.

Step Six: 
Say the following ten times to yourself and to anyone who asks how your marriage is, "It is a God-meant work in process." The weaknesses in him and the weaknesses in you were meant to unearth your need for Christ daily. Congratulations! Your marriage is working.

Step Seven: 
Let the Lord, not you, work on your husband. He is not your project or child. God will take care of his sanctification. When you are tempted to hint or correct or teach him, tell the Lord about it. God's work is much more effective and powerful than your own meddling.

Step Eight: 
Regain the respect for your husband that you once had before learning he wasn't superman. This is nearly impossible to do while simultaneously contemplating his deficiencies. Review Step Three to re-center your thoughts, then ask the Lord to help you regain respect. There are several ways to help this process. One: observe him in action at his job or doing something he does well. Two: ask his mother to remind you of his strengths. Three: daily list what he does well.

Step Nine: 
Find someone to keep you accountable regarding your words and thoughts about your husband. Someone who is going to encourage you to lean upon the Lord and not someone who is going to encourage you to complain more. Meet and pray with them regularly.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Why Mothering is Hard

Mothering is hard because . . .

. . . on Rose's share day when the children are supposed to bring something to school that begins with the letter "R", and I suggest Rose bring a rose or a sprig of rosemary, and after she agrees and helps me pick the plants and put them in a vase, she decides at the last minute that she'd rather bring a box of raisins.

. . . on the morning I have to myself and on a day when Lee is excited to go to school and watch a movie about penguins with his class, he wakes up with a wheezing cough and a runny nose, and despite his pleas to go to school, I must keep him home with me.

. . . I lay wide awake in my bed listening to Lee coughing and wondering what more might be done to help him sleep peacefully. And when I can think of nothing else, I then wonder if he is as distraught as me or if he is already asleep.

. . . I can hardly get through a day without seeing internet articles or hearing a parent or grandparent or magazine telling me to do different and conflicting things, and how, if I don't do them, my child will end up in jail.

. . . the little people always seem to be standing where I need to walk or walking very slowly in front of me when I need to get somewhere quickly.

. . . when Lee and Rose fight and act as if they can't stand one another, and then I separate them, they take a great amount of pleasure trying to secretly get back together and laugh about their naughtiness like little cronies.

. . . everything is so foreign and frightening and seemingly detrimental with the first child.

. . . the children have no tip-it-back-up reflex. So when the milk jug starts to spill, they stand there staring at it as if this fountain of white liquid were a brand new phenomenon and they wonder what will happen next.

. . . everyone seems to frown upon small children having screen time, but they frown even more upon children entertaining themselves in creative ways in public places.

. . . when I give my children the freedom to dress themselves, I must live with the real or imagined looks that others give me when they see the results.

. . . allowing my children to play hard in the backyard means that some of their clothes are ruined and the house is covered in dust and fingerprints.

. . . it gives me the impression that I have control of these little children's futures, and it is so easy to forget that I neither made them nor am going to save their souls. I suppose then that mothering can be rather easy because I don't have to fret about anything. Everything is in God's hands: their education, their personality quirks, their understanding of the bible, their future careers, everything.

Monday, March 5, 2018

My Brain Made Me Do It: The Biology of Sin

I've just discovered that I’ve been operating on the belief that my goodness was something of my own choosing. I’ve chosen not to kill anyone and not to cheat on my husband. I don't do drugs or chain smoke, nor am I involved in homosexual behavior or theft or lying. And if my neighbor had an ox, I wouldn’t want it. 

I have, in fact, been measuring myself much like the rich young ruler did in Luke 18. “All these things I have kept from my youth” (Luke 18:21). And yet how much of my goodness has been a result of positive social pressure or a stable upbringing or fear of prison or a healthy body? 

I believe C.S. Lewis says it well.

“If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. . . A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognize their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered. In other words, it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom.” (Lewis, 214)

At times, I've indeed had my self-satisfaction shattered. I usually fall into bouts of shame and disappointment. My perfect crystal image of myself has got cracked and ruined! But I find ways of mending that. The most delicious way is to search out other’s flaws and hold those up next to mine. This can be done through prying questions or simple gossip. When I hear an ugly bit about my neighbor’s marriage, I use this to feel that I have a superior marriage. Or I can watch the bad behavior in other’s children to make me feel that my children have been brought up rather well. It is a pathetic bandaid to cover feelings of inferiority. In fact, it does not heal at all. Rather, it upholds the illusion that I am better than others, and that if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t make those poor choices.

However, reading The Biology of Sin by Matthew S. Stanford, PhD has altered my thoughts a bit. Stanford argues that the biology of our brain can make certain people more prone to certain kinds of sin. I found this quite believable when speaking of men and women. Certainly our sexes' unique strengths suggest that we also must have unique weaknesses.

“A recent Catholic survey supports this idea that men and women sin differently. The study was based on the confessions heard by ninety-five-year-old Jesuit priest Roberto Busa after a lifetime in the priesthood and was focused on the traditional seven deadly sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth. The most common sins reported by men were lust and gluttony (sins related to immediate pleasure and gratification), while women were more likely to struggle with pride and envy (sins related to relational status and privilege).” (Two Sexes ‘Sin in Different Ways’ as cited in Stanford, 12)

I also don’t find it hard to believe that people of different personality types sin differently. I suppose someone who flies by the seat of his or her pants may be more likely to procrastinate than someone who plans ahead. And someone who is artistic may be less likely to keep commitments than a task-orientated person. I’m speaking in gross generalities here, but I think you get the point. 

Stanford takes this idea one step further in his book The Biology of Sin. I didn’t entirely understand all the technical brain jargon, but I did understand him to mean that our brain’s biology, which is formed by genetics and our upbringing, causes some people to be more susceptible to certain kinds of sins than others.

Here are a few examples of what he means:

“In the case of rage, disturbances in the neurotransmitters serotonin have been suggested to play a role . . . Several studies have shown abnormal variations in the genes that code for the production of serotonin in individuals who display impulsive aggressive outbursts” (Stanford, 35).

“Studies have shown that men with high baseline levels of testosterone are more likely to leave the home because of troubled marital relations, extramarital sex, or spousal abuse” (Stanford, 55).

“Janice Crouse, senior fellow at Concerned Women for America, has reported on research that found ‘the production of oxytocin varied among women according to the level of distress and anxiety or the degree of security in their relationships. The women who had fewer negative emotional relationships in their lifetime experienced greater oxytocin production.’ These results suggest that women with a significant history of relational issues are less able to form significant emotional bonds with subsequent partners because of low oxytocin production” (Crouse, Janice Shaw as cited in Stanford, 55).

“Low serotonin functioning has been demonstrated in numerous studies of antisocial and criminal populations” (Stanford, 72).

“. . . homosexual orientation in men may be a result of an undermasculinized (more feminized) anterior hypothalamus” (Stanford, 107-108). And “females prenatally exposed to high levels of androgens are masculinized and report differences in sexual orientation” (Stanford, 108-109).

Stanford also discusses the brain chemistry of people who are violent and habitually dishonest. He argues that since Adam and Eve first sinned, we have been "struggling to try to meet unfulfilled needs and uncontrollable wants" (Stanford, 20). This results in “immoral desires, distorted drives, corrupt thought patterns, and sinful habits” (Stanford, 23). Simply stated: without God everyone is born into a broken machine. Some of us inherit a machine in worse condition than others.  

This doesn’t mean that alcoholics and perpetual liars and murderers can't be expected to obey the law. Given enough motivation, fear of punishment, or social rejection most people can be coerced into proper moral behavior. And certainly that is what a country's government was formed to do: maintain social order and protect the helpless.

What this does mean, however, is that, given different circumstances, I too could've quite easily have been that murderer or adulterer or homosexual. Yes, even a Hitler if I'd been born into a different time and a different family. 

I can give myself no credit for the good I do quite naturally. I have been raised in a loving home where good moral values were modeled. I was born with a good constitution and a strong body. These were gifts to me from God. And much of my good behavior is due to them. 

Thus, when I see other believers struggling with what comes easily to me, I can't look at them as lesser Christians or tell them to muscle through it. “Abnormal biological predispositions, corrupt thought patterns, and sinful desires do not simply go away by themselves once we come to faith, no matter how much we want them to” (Sanford, 26).

Transformation for them and for me only comes through a supernatural power overpowering our faulty brain chemistry. Within us, Christ can overcome all the imbalanced serotonin and oxytocin levels. He teaches us how to be stronger than our impulses. He teach us how to not just act like we care about our neighbors but actually love our neighbors too. I mean really love them, not just some fake thing that we do to look nice. 

I find this rather comforting when I am disgusted with that broken crystal image of myself or when I am overwhelmed with my apparent tendencies to compare and strut and prickle at others. Perhaps, I am not as rich in spirit as I had formerly thought.

" . . . if you are a poor creature—poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels—saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion—nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends—do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all—not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last)." (Lewis 215)

"Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greed to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:17-24)

Work Cited

Crouse, Janice Shaw. “Love Potion Number ‘O’”. As quoted in Stanford, Matthew S. PhD. The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

Stanford, Matthew S. PhD. The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

“Two Sexes ‘Sin in Different Ways.’” BBC News. As quoted in Matthew S. Stanford’s The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

All scripture is quoted in the English Standard Version.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Rich Young Ruler

There is a story in the gospels that has always bothered me. It is the story about the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he needs to do to have eternal life. I’ve been bothered by this story primarily because at the end of it Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23b). In Luke he says, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).

How disturbing is that! I consider myself to be wealthy. I’ve been told by pastors and educators that I’m wealthy. And I don’t specifically mean me but Americans in general. I’ve been told that America is one of the richest nations in the world, and that our poor still live better than most of the world’s population. So I start worrying that I need to sell all my possessions and live in a cardboard box because my wealth is going to somehow disqualify me from heaven.

Plus, I've found several aspects about this story puzzling. Like why does Jesus ask the man, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19b). Why would Jesus correct the man like this? Wasn’t the rich young ruler correct in calling Jesus good? 

And if it’s impossible for any of us to be perfect apart from Christ, why does Jesus say, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21b)? Certainly Jesus didn’t mean that if the man went and sold all his possessions, he would be perfect and have earned himself a place in heaven. 

And one more peculiar bit: after Jesus says it's hard for a rich person to be saved, why did the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25b). Did they think that being wealthy automatically got you a place in God’s kingdom?

See. Doesn’t make sense.  

And that’s why I don’t think this story is talking about wealth at all. Bear with me as I propose something that I have yet to find in a bible commentary. 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke precede the story of the rich young ruler with Jesus asking the little children to come to him. I believe the take-away from that is that we must recognize our helplessness and total reliance on Jesus in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

So next this rich young ruler asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus answers him, saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:18-19). 

I would like to propose that the ruler’s question might be reworded like this: “You are a particularly upright person, Jesus. So certainly you’ll be a good judge of my character. See it’s like this, I’ve been good my whole life, but I’m worried. How can I know that I’ve been good enough?”

Jesus’ response challenges the ruler’s use of the word "good." Jesus wants the man to consider who is actually good and who is not. As we learn later, the man thinks himself pretty good. So Jesus pulls the rug out from under the man’s feet. The man wants to know how good he has to be in order to go to heaven, and Jesus is saying, “You can’t be good enough. No one is good enough but God, i.e. me."

But then Jesus seems to answer the rich ruler’s question. “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And the ruler replies saying, “All these I have kept from my youth” (Matt 18:20-21). 

I think Jesus is giving the ruler a chance to assess himself. “Do you really think that you haven’t committed adultery or murder or stolen? Do you really think you’ve never lied or dishonored your parents? You called me good, but how good do you think you are?” And in reply, the rich young ruler says, “I’ve been pretty good.”

Then Jesus says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). Now, if we can agree that Jesus isn’t actually saying that the man will have met God’s standard of perfection by selling all he possesses, then Jesus must be saying something else. 

Might Jesus be asking the rich young ruler to give up more than just his wealth? That is, to give up himself? Such a question would’ve prompted the man to ask himself, “How can I do that? I can’t govern from poverty. I can’t continue being good outside this position.” Jesus is asking the man to deny his rich-young-ruler-ness, take up his cross and follow Jesus.

All the gospels show how both the rich and the poor are able to follow Jesus. And while Jesus has plenty to say about wealth, I don’t think this is one of those instances. I don't think Jesus is saying that the one thing keeping the rich ruler from following Christ is the ruler’s wealth. But rather, I think Jesus is saying that the one thing keeping the rich ruler from following Jesus is the ruler himself. He isn’t ready to deny himself and his own goodness in order to follow Jesus and rely on Jesus’ goodness. So the man goes away sad. He can’t die to himself.

Jesus next statement may seem to muddle the argument, but bear with me. Jesus says, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:24-25). Yes, this part does seem like Jesus is talking about financial wealth, but I think that’s because wealth was thought to be a result of inward goodness. 

The disciples next question makes it seem even more apparent that Jesus can't be just talking about financial wealth. “Who then can be saved?” they ask (Matt. 19:25b).

Why would the disciples be asking this? Certainly they knew plenty of wealthy people who weren't good. They had the Romans around them, after all. Their question only makes sense if they’re not just talking about the man’s wealth, but his moral goodness. “If that good man can’t make it to heaven, who can?” Jesus must mean not just physical wealth but moral wealth.

So Jesus then looks at the disciples and says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26b). The point can’t be driven home anymore than that! No man can be good, even the ones that seem good! But with God, through the blood of Jesus, anyone can be good enough, both the wealthy and the poor.

This reminds me again of what Jesus said prior to this story: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17). Like needy children we all must rely on God for our moral goodness because there is none good but God. We cannot make it on our own steam. We must deny our own goodness and accept Jesus’.

All verses used are in English Standard Version.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

To the Intellectual

May being intellectually relevant 
not lure you away from elementary truths.
May this adult diet not assume superiority
over the milk on which you first believed.
May you not regard the basics as irrelevant 
now that you have advanced to higher levels of thinking.
Rather, may you work out how the verses of infancy 
sustain a grown man with grown-up troubles.

May the melding of belief to behavior 
continually compel you to consider your beginnings.
May the instances of unmet expectations 
and offending words and perceived injustices
crack and split the calcifying skins of yesterday’s faith,
and produce a faith for today’s letdowns and slights and fears.

May those simple creeds said by philosopher and layman—
“complete in the fullness of Christ,” 
“cast off the sinful flesh,” 
and “gift of God, not by works”— 
do battle with the discord in your heart, 
which seeps in from the world and the flesh and the devil.
May the faith you put in those creeds 
be strong enough to penetrate your self-preserving defenses
and the haunts you frequent for control and authority.
May such faith snap the cords that tie you to lofty and debasing roles,
and free you to remember who you have become, who you are, and who you will be.

May you swallow this faith each day with your daily bread, 
down the throat that trumpets ideas;
down like the oxygen that your lungs absorb;
down into the depths of your heart,
the nucleus of all your sensitivities.
Thus upholding you to act without pretending
and feel the Spirit of God claiming you as his own.

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV)