This New Year’s I’m celebrating in the best way, brilliant sunshine bursting through floor-to-ceiling windows at my favorite coffee hotspot downtown, a buzzing atmosphere for family and friends enjoying embarrassingly late brunches. (Travel tip: there’s free parking in downtown Lancaster on federal holidays!)
On the first day of the year, I’m taking a few moments to breathe in the newness, and as I open my planner, I notice a new scent.
I smell violent adventure.
In many ways, the year ahead looks very hard, full of change, decision-making, exploring new opportunities, meeting new people, networking.
It all sounds adventure-y, yes. But also terrifying for this self-proclaimed introvert.
Despite the fact that it’s easy to writhe under the day-to-day grind of vocational service, sometimes it’s easier knowing exactly what the next twelve months hold, vocationally.
If you find that you don’t have that luxury this New Year’s Day, I offer you this observation gleaned from the endless stream of running podcasts I listened to driving back and forth from Ohio for the holidays. #midwest #roadtrips
Lindsey Hein, interviewing ultramarathoner Jessica Goldman, asked her about mental fortitude on the trail: “How do you navigate the ultramarathon mentally? What makes a person able to conquer distances of 100 miles or more?
Goldman responded, “One thing I repeat to myself is, ‘It doesn’t always get worse.’”
When you’re in mile 20 of a 100-mile race, you may be feeling awful, your legs screaming at you. When you look ahead to the fact that you have 80 miles left to go, there are two options. You may be tempted to think that you don’t have enough in you, and that if this is how things are going now, there’s absolutely no way that you can finish, because you cannot handle it if things continue to go downhill. (Heh heh.) Or, you have this option: you can glean from the experience of Goldman and others who know that sometimes it doesn’t always get worse. Sometimes life-giving running rhythms develop in the back half of the race, and it’s only in those first 20 miles that you experience mind-numbing distress.
Take this as a running tip and also as a booster for your New Year’s day. Perhaps this is the year in which your lived experience collides with never-before-experienced wellness.
Because that, my dear readers, is hope.
Hope is flexible. Hope is open to new experiences. (Truly, hope believes that new experiences are in fact possible.) Hope trusts that God gives wisdom for navigating new places and people. Hope believes that the power of Jesus gives us everything we need for a godly life. Hope is humble and ignores the awkward feeling of trying to do things differently. Hope is ambidextrous, employing multiple modalities for seeking spiritual and mental health.
J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote: “The world indeed is full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
I think Tolkien points to a hopefulness much needed in our world. (Even though as I’m blogging, I’m at the same time reading at Peter Hitchens article over at First Things called “Vice and Fire” that questions the religious ambivalence of Tolkien’s work and also prophesies the cultural effects of religious indifference promoted by George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Hitchens brings clarity to the way in which Tolkien and Martin create nonreligious fictional worlds which have no need nor vision for the spiritual; indeed Hitchens writes that Martin’s “fantasy greatly disturbs me, because it helps to normalize the indifference to Christianity which is a far greater threat to it than active atheism.” So on second thought, perhaps Tolkien’s hopefulness doesn’t go far enough. What fair-ness, for example? And what, really, is its undergirding? Human wistfulness? Sentimentality? That is the last thing we need.)
As you step forward into growth this new year, I pray that the hope you encounter is real and true, creational and cosmic, impossibly larger than human sentiment.
In 2019, perhaps Isaiah is the prophet we need:
Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
“You will be so impressed when you come home and see allllll my snowmen!” Mama’s voice smiles over the phone, oozing with sarcasm. Every year I criticize Mom’s hideous figurines set in haunting displays about the house. We’ve always quarreled over decorations, neither of us mincing words.
I’m nearing the 270 Columbus outer-belt, a route made familiar by my countless OSU commutes. It’s 10:30 p.m., and the city is nearing its bedtime. Weaving through traffic, I choose the swiftest lanes, paths memorized on my drives to campus. My 10-year-old iPod nano (a gift from my sister and her then-boyfriend) shuffles, playing indie Paper Route, and just then, driving through the glowing Columbus city-scape, it’s like it’s 2011 again, everyone’s in college, life is crucial, and TØP is a backyard band made up of a homeschool kid who used to play Christian high school basketball.
The city is a backward bronze horizon as I turn dark west. Soon I reach the familiar plains; the howling wind comforts me, and the stars are visible on the open plain.
“I just love the snowmen you’ve set out!” I gush, upon alighting on the front steps.
Mom rolls her eyes and gathers me into a hug. Papa is napping silently, bare feet sticking out of his favorite denim blanket, eyes behind an old Qatar Airways sleep mask.
It’s 11:00 p.m., and though I’ve already eaten supper, I stuff my face with blood oranges, Emma’s popcorn, homemade dipped gingersnaps, peanut butter blossoms, and a giant slice of frosted tea-ring. It occurs to me that my gastroenteritis ER disaster is firmly in the past.
Mama and I quietly catch up in the living room, me breathlessly explaining my own Christmas miracle from earlier that morning, which can only be explained here as me requesting a Very Important Email from a long-lost professor in Seattle. The sensitive situation required careful research, phone calls, a letter, and a certain kind of academic etiquette that I’m never sure if I get quite right. I can tell you that Thursday night I fell asleep half-seriously asking God for an email for Christmas. The next morning I drove my 30-minute work commute in glum anxiousness, not knowing where to turn during the week of Christmas break, if my efforts were in vain.
Haphazardly checking my email before exiting my car for my last day of work before Christmas break, I gasped in surprise at my inbox, too afraid to even read the brand-new email.
It was better than I could have even hoped.
I was beside myself upon entering work, that I couldn’t figure out what to do in the office with my excitement, so I just went to the bathroom and refilled all the toilet papers.
Isn’t it freaky when your prayers are answered in super-specific, timely ways?
Mom, of course, had heard the whole story twice, but listened gently in motherly raptures at my excitement. In the living room, we giggled over Oasis Chorale news, and Mama and Papa listened quietly as I played for myself for the first time Arvo Part’s “The Deer’s Cry.” Struck by its meditative, almost Russian-sounding quality, I carefully read the text:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ in me, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me, Christ with me.
It’s chilling to imagine performing this piece. Simply put, disciplined worship forms us. And the vision of the future here, the already-not-yet of the Gospel described here is so profound, that it lent a moment of soberness to our crumbly-cookie gathering.
Let me be honest: the disparity between my own brokenness and the Christ-centered existence mentioned in this text breeds spiritual insecurity for me, a common topic for me and my mentors. As I approach the new year, I continue to explore ways to build spiritual confidence and unity with Christ.
Saint Patrick, who composed the text in 433, chanted the text along with his comrades while fleeing through a forest, away from persecutors set to kill them. The story goes that the travelers were transformed, as reported by the perpetrators, into a deer and twenty fawns. Thus, St. Patrick was saved.
(What a strange manifestation of grace, using common forms. Strange and common… like an email.)
Dipping into Disciplines for the Inner Life last week, I was encouraged to pray not for answers, but for the sense of being heard, by God. Is that what had happened when I had checked my email before work?
Receiving exactly what you ask for is confidence-boosting. It is also rare. It also breeds doubt because you second-guess if it’s actually an answer, or just a coincidence, something you received that’s so small that you shouldn’t have prayed about it in the first place. (Call me irreverent, but I struggle to pray for lost coins. I’d rather divert the Lord to, say, the border.) Then, once you decide to actually call it answered prayer, you try to interpret it. What does the “answer” mean for you and your one, beautiful life? Does the answer have anything to bear on other requests, much more monumental, for which you seek wisdom?
One and a half days later, I stuff my feet into brilliant purple running shoes and pull on tights and all manner of winter running garb. I steal a handkerchief from my dad’s drawer and tie it over my nose and mouth to protect my lungs.
Shaking out my legs on my first vacation run, I squint my eyes through the only opening on my face, between my hat and scarf. I pick up speed, and the earth quiets. The sun has set, and the entire landscape is a frozen brown, the lavender-blue sky meeting the razor-straight solitary trail, lined by scraggy saplings. Just before I reach “The Tree,” I hear a thundering under the wide expanse. Over my right shoulder, I catch a movement, and my adrenaline surges.
Three white-tailed deer thunder toward me.
For a moment, their light hooves match my rhythm, then thunder past.
I chase them, and their tails disappear just up ahead.
I can’t help but remember…
…“The Deer’s Cry.”
Perhaps readers think that such a sighting may be common for Ohio landscapes, but I’ve been running this trail for twelve years and have never once spied such wildlife.
The experience was so otherworldly that it’s hard to not ask what sort of meaning it prefigures.
For now, I turn to the Psalms:
“As for God, his way is perfect: The Lord’s word is flawless; he shields all who take refuge in him. For who is God besides the Lord? And who is the Rock except our God? It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights.”
I hold this memory close at the end of this page-turning year.
This past weekend, I listened to no less than thirty academic presentations in a space of 2.5 days as Canada’s national Mennonite Historical Society hosted scholars and speakers for the annual Mennonite Studies conference at the University of Winnipeg. For me, to hear Mennonite history treated with academic regard of the highest degree was paradigm shifting. The conclusions of scholars on Mennonites and education, specifically Mennonite girls in education, were especially moving.
If Canadian Mennonite history were a monarchy, then Frank Epp was crowned king by the frequent reference to his contribution to the three-volume work Mennonites in Canada, his daughter Marlene Epp reigning as current monarch, with U of W’s Mennonite Studies chair Royden Loewen acting as lovable prime minister.
It’s been only recently that I’ve come to discover that the idea of a singular “Mennonite identity” is passé, and it was confirmed to me by the conference. The Canadian presenters seemed to take this as a given as they presented deep research showing diversity of expression in Anabaptist identity in Canada since the 1970s. The fact of diversity within Canadian Mennonitism was further supported through Ted Regehr’s opening comments that highlighted that one major change of Anabaptism in Canada since the 1970s is that it is now primarily an urban identity, not a rural one. (In this way, Mennonites in America seem some fifty years behind their northerly neighbors.) I’ll share here some of the emphases of conference topics and research that to me seemed particularly Canadian in flavor.
1. One of the first concerns raised seemed to be that of indigenous issues. Canadian Mennonite scholars were sensitive to the fact that white Mennonite settlers in Canada settled on Native lands, and the conference began with a ceremonial naming of the tribes on whose land rests the University of Winnipeg. Daniel Sims outlined the interaction of Mennonites with Tsay Keh Nay in Ingenika, British Columbia while they squatted on “government” land. One MCC worker spoke about donations at an MCC thrift store being able to be repatriated to First Nations people in Saskatoon. Coupled with this was occasional reflection on the Mennonites’ responsibilities to the 2008 Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Melanie Kampen asking the question if Canadian Mennonites have fully explored their participation in the cultural genocide of First Nations through residential schools.
2. There were frequent references to Canada’s 1971 induction of a state policy of multiculturalism, which led to (for Mennonites) the creation and promotion of the Manitoba Mennonite Centennial (attended by 70,000) and even government grants for writing the histories that Frank Epp did.
3. Most thrilling of all was my first taste of Canada’s vast archiving of its Mennonite identity. IT IS TO BE RESPECTED. We in the States do not have any sort of Mennonite Historical Society on a national level, and the level of scholarship, documentation, and archival work is simply phenomenal, leading to highly gratifying presentations like that of Laureen Harder-Gissing’s work on Canadian Mennonites at the edge of activism.
It was a Canadian Mennonite woman who gained national attention by lobbying (successfully) for less violent scenes in the children’s TV show “Power Rangers” in the 1980s.
Mennonites also hopped on the anti-war toys campaign of the 1990s. Ontario Mennonite Fred Snyder bought his local Sears’ entire stock of GI Joe toys on his credit card, and then returned them after Christmas. Sears was forced to return the toys to the manufacturer!
Dr. Janis Thiessen delighted conference-goers with her exposition on John Braun and his Leftist manifesto of the Radical Mennonite Union of the 70s. Hoping to unite the radical Left and Anabaptists, Braun organized and gained funding for a pan-American road trip in which he interviewed Mennonite dissidents along the way, at the same time distributing Leftist propaganda, stopping by the Chicago Mennonite commune that produced the Leftist Mennonite newspaper, the Mennonite Stomach. Thiessen’s research culminated with observations about how the Mennonite Left differed from its nondenominational counterparts. First, there was an intergenerational institutional support in the fact that the older generation indulged Braun, allowing him to create his trip and even agreeing to be interviewed. Second, the Mennonite Left maintained pacifism and the absence of violence, unlike the New Left when they lost out.
4. Another concern to be raised was that of gender – how would Canadian Mennonites include and promote LGBTQ persons within the church, and how did Canadians view the historical contributions of Mennonite women in their respective communities? (Frank Epp’s wife Helen personally reviewed countless national documents in order to find and record every single Mennonite conscripted during the World War. Also, 40% of Mennonite farmers who testified against building a uranium refinery, the El Dorado nuclear site, on Mennonite farmland in Warman, Saskatchewan, in 1980 were women. [They won, incidentally.])
Thus, a theological self-consciousness emerged, along with a call to “change our theology when it hurts others” (which begs the question – what is the definition of theology, and is it so liminal?) This self-consciousness appeared both in relation to gender, but also to ethnicity. For example, Mennonite Brethren folks wondered whether a name-change is in order for the conference, an option for a new name being Evangelical Anabaptist. (One sees how the name is less gendered and less ethnic than Mennonite Brethren). Which actually makes sense given the fact that one researcher pointed out that the Mennonite Brethren church in Quebec is made up of almost entirely non-white immigrants.
The ethnic question was also brought up implicitly by the cultural diversity presentations. For example, how do we account for a Chinese Mennonite Brethren church in Caracas, Venezuela? “That’s so specific,” in the words of Marlene Epp (who was actually describing a cookbook called Friendly Favorites: a Cookbook of Favorite Recipes of Ontario Markham Mennonite Girls Born in 1995, but it nevertheless relates.)
5. Also noticeable was the Mennonite connection to a farming past (and farming future). We heard how Ontario Old Orders responded to the implementation of electric, refrigerated milk tanks. “Can’t use milk cans anymore? We’re moving to Guatemala.” In relation to a change in farming policy, there was, historically, overall, a wide berth of resistance, flexibility, and acceptance. Or as Royden Loewen’s research mused, “Are Canadian Mennonite farmers biotic believers? Or Anabaptist agricultural agnostics?”
6. A purview into contemporary history of Mennonites necessarily reported on Mennonites “Re-Imagining Education,” and it was telling to hear about the move away from Bible schools to Christian universities for the Mennonite Brethren. I tried to remain stoically unemotional when powerhouse Robyn Sneath dusted off her shiny new Oxford doctorate, reporting on forty oral interviews she collected from Lower German Mennonites on their experience with 8th grade public education, and why secondary education seems unobtainable. Further, Janice Harper’s work on the Elmira Life and Work School in Ontario demonstrated to me a flexibility and creativity at the state level to address truancy among conservative Anabaptist who drop out of school after 8th grade. (Among the compromises this Canadian high school made were providing the Mennonites high school segregation at an off-campus location (!) and a work-study option, in which students attend high school one or two days a week, working for a local business for the other three or four days.) The creativity and flexibility demonstrated by the public school board in order to compromise with the religious community in Elmira, Ontario pierced like a neon saber.
But I couldn’t hold back the tears because I was seeing the issues for which I champion every day as an educator discussed in respectful, nuanced ways by national scholars, while feeling the weight of class struggle bind me in solidarity to one Lower German Mennonite girl who solemnly declared when asked if she would ever go to university: “I could never afford it.” While a fog settles over my own educational path, a path of economic resistance, to see my questions legitimized by cutting-edge researchers was paradigm shifting, yet also called into remembrance what Daniel Sims, a Native researcher called for: “No research on us without us.”
Thankfully, every two hours we breaked for coffee and pastries, and I was able to gulp huge breaths of air, and Mennonite big-whigs exchanged my tears for business cards, helpful introductions, and a genuine interest in my conference affiliation because what are you, and would you even consider yourself Mennonite.
7. The last session cast its eye toward the future with talks on Youth & Generation. Gil Dueck’s “Conceptualizing the Millennial: Questions of Theology and Identity” reported that millennials’ questions are not theological in nature, but rather those of identity. A few data points: (1) The 2011 study “Hemorrhaging Faith: Why & When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying & Returning to the Church” reported in a weirdly recognizable way that things that keep teenagers from engaging with the church include, for one, not having a meaningful relationship with God (not that teens were able to describe what a meaningful relationship looked like, yet they seemed to be able to feel what it was not). (2) “Identity” is becoming crucially important in emerging adulthood, and the search for identity is continuing quite abnormally into the late 20s and even low 30s. (3) Now, adulthood is about standing alone, rather than accepting role change.
Peter Epp spoke on unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts and asked the question, “Why aren’t young people getting baptized?” His named his work “It’s Like Dating Around” because participants in his study equated baptism to marriage, in importance. Since it was a historical conference, Epp was forced to offer objective findings rather than subjective analysis, but it was easy to see how the research pointed to a response. For instance, Epp reported the following concerning unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts: (1) To them, baptism requires certainty of belief and changed behavior AND they believe that certainty of belief and changed behavior will be arrived at individually (as in the case of one girl who was waiting to get baptized until she had time to “think really thoughtful thoughts” about what she believed). (2) Secondly, they’ve experienced isolation at church.
If you’re not a historian, feel free to make subjective analysis now.
I worried that a conference of this pace might be tiring, but part of the fun was managing the metacognition of dropping down into a new country… adjusting to signs for “the washroom,” being frowned at for saying, “Yes, sir” (“This is NOT the military!”), noticing uncluttered European-like spaces (a design sense that’s inexplicably un-American), Canadian politeness (could Americans be any more whiny at security), and Canadian forthrightness (especially females). Also the cold. (On a 7o morning, an older conference member announced cheerily, “I walked here, 1.2 miles. Took me twenty minutes. Nice brisk walk.” Another man: “I bike to work. If it’s below -40o, I wear goggles and a face mask. If it’s above -40o, you don’t really need the goggles.”) Have literally never seen an electric hitching post before, in the parking lot, and there was an electric plug sticking out of the hood of the 2018 Dodge Charger we rented. My friend Janae and I dashed out for the most highly rated coffee in Winnipeg, Fools & Horses, and haphazard flakes flittered down lazily, an afterthought in the pink morning sky. (My friend Janae is a chemist, but she graciously accompanied me to the three-day conference, and I think she took more notes than I did!)
Winnipeg’s annual Santa Claus parade provided us an hour detour before our final stop: across the Red River is Winnipeg’s French quarter, St. Boniface, and slipping into Promenade, we enjoyed bouef bourguignonne by candlelight, the city lights sparkling on the banks of the river, and we discussed with exuberance our copious notes. Warmed and grateful, I recalled a bit of John Braun’s manifesto as we later stepped out into the night: “Before change, understanding. Before understanding, confrontation. God is alive. Magic is afoot.”
One of my reading goals has been tackling James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, the first in his three-volume Cultural Liturgies. The “It-read” of OC 2012, the book arrived on my shelf years ago, and I am finally doing it justice.
In the book, Smith champions a Christian education that is not merely the dispensation of a Christian worldview, because, as he argues, humans are more than thinking machines, and the most important parts of human existence are not heady, intellectual affairs (we at Shasta’s Fog imagine that they nearly are) but rather the habits and loves of whole-bodied persons. He therefore reimagines humanity as “desiring animals” rather than “thinking things.”
Professor at Calvin College (*cough* theological alliances made clear), Smith writes to a seemingly Protestant audience, one that he finds doctrinally bloated (Ye lucky Reformed brethren! Ye of the orthodoxy!), evidenced by his gentle questions:
“What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” (18).
Some worldview definitions reduce “Christian faith primarily to a set of ideas, principles, claims, and propositions that are known and believed. The goal of all this is ‘correct’ thinking. But this makes it sound as if we are essentially the sorts of things that Descartes described us to be: thinking things that are containers for ideas. What if that is actually only small slice of what we are? And what if that’s not even the most important part? In the rationalist picture, we are not only reduced to primarily thinking things; we are also seen as things whose bodies are nonessential (and rather regrettable) containers for our minds… But what if our bodies are essential to our identities?… What if the core of our identity is located more in the body than the mind?” (32)
Smith proves this nature in a creative anthropological study of the American shopping mall (reminiscent of Horace Miner’s “Nacirema” essay) to represent that all embodied humans are religious, chapel or no chapel, and that our behavior rises from a certain vision that we have of the good life, a vision which, cyclically, is reaffirmed through habits and practices. In short, “what defines us is what we love,” not what we believe (25). Humans, then, are creatures of desire. Or as Smith states,
“Human persons are intentional creatures whose fundamental way of ‘intending’ the world is love or desire. This love or desire—which is unconscious or noncognitive—is always aimed at some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom. What primes us to be so oriented—and act accordingly—is a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination, which is closely linked to our bodily sense” (63).
And so we read Smith’s presentation of the “new,” which rejects humans as merely “believers,” for he questions the capability of worldview, as we understand it, to explain our behavior. “For most people,” Smith points out, “religious devotion is rarely a matter of theory” (69).
(Which, I think, is a *very important* distinction for those of us trying to make sense of [what I would call] forceful contemporary Anabaptist orthopraxy.)
Without worldview as a conceptual framework, Smith must offer us another explanation of reality, and he borrows Charles Taylor’s “social imaginary,” conceivably because “Taylor intuits that what we ‘think about’ is just the tip of the iceberg and cannot fully or even adequately account for how and why we make our way in the world” (65). Convinced of the limits of worldview, Smith then fully explains this social imaginary as a “noncognitive director of our actions and our entire comportment to the world… It is a way of intending the world meaningfully—giving it significance—but in a way that is not cognitive or propositional” (66). Smith notes how Taylor insists that “‘it can never be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines’” (66). Which means, that the social imaginary must have different means of transmitting itself—through images, stories, and legends.
I want to take a break here and, first, point out how much SENSE the social imaginary makes to one needing an explanation of the “success” of contemporary Anabaptism. How can a denomination self-perpetuate so successfully, for so long, in a seemingly “doctrine-less” context of practice? But that is what Taylor exactly expects: “If the understanding makes the practice possible, it is also true that it is the practice that largely carries the understanding” (67). Which explains the incredulous looks I receive when I question whether Mennonites really know what they believe. Passionate adherents immediately begin listing “beliefs” that are nothing more than ordinances, practices. Which, as we have learned, carry certain understandings about “who I am,” an understanding rarely put into words, but powerful nonetheless.
Second, Smith develops a rich argument for the viability and strength of social imaginary being perpetuated through “images,” images that powerfully (yet subtly) develop a particular vision of the good life. My one fleeting thought (I cannot help myself): what if we went further than shopping mall behavior and assessed the liturgical practice of incessant scrolling? How does this practice/habit/behavior both reflect and refine our vision of life? What does the social media scrolling practice say about what we love? How does it sculpt our loves? How does it redefine them? If the “social imaginary” is conceptually true, then our media habits hold powerful sway in creating and sculpting our loves, for they powerfully captivate our imaginations, compounding in time to drive a stake, claiming our loves.
Since I’m only one-third of the way through the book, I imagine Smith will do several things: (1) more fully work out how the social imaginary is different than “worldview” as we know it, and (2) offer suggestions for how the church must necessarily shift away from thinking worldview-ishly, and begin offering embodied alternatives.
In a telling essay called “Why Victoria’s In on the Secret,” Smith highlights how modern advertising campaigns seem understand our embodied nature better than the church. He writes, “On one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry—which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination—is operating which a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied desiring creatures” (76). Yet the church seems to be fighting these strong passions and loves with… ideas. And beliefs. In our heads. Which have somehow gotten disconnected from our bodies. Smith writes, “When Hollister and Starbucks haven taken hold of our heart with tangible, material liturgies, Christian schools are ‘fighting back’ by giving young people Christian ideas. We hand young people (and old people) ‘Christian worldview’ and then tell them, ‘There, that should fix it.’ But such strategies are aimed at the head and thus miss the real target: our hearts, our loves, our desires. Christian education as formation needs to be a pedagogy of desire” (33).
(I might note here that Smith uses the term “liturgies” to mean any formative practice, that by repetition, becomes a ritual of identity. Less like brushing your teeth, more like going to Cross-Fit every day or shopping on amazon.com. What does it mean that one goes to Cross-fit every day, and how does that habit or ritual begin to bend back on a person, shaping their desire? What liturgies do we participate in every day? Are there Christian liturgies, and secular liturgies? Smith calls liturgies “secular” when they “capture our hearts by capturing our imaginations and drawing us into ritual practices that ‘teach’ us to love something very different from the kingdom of God” (88).)
Finally, Smith will (3) more fully explain how the new conception of the social imaginary comes to bear in what we call Christian education. I love Smith’s definition of education:
“An education – whether acknowledged or not – is a formation of the desires and imagination that creates a certain kind of person who is part of a certain kind of people. The facts and information learned as part of the process are always situated and embedded in something deeper that is being learned all along: a particular vision of the good life” (29).
The full title of the work is Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, because it is when education prioritizes worship (whatever that is) that education can begin to expand beyond the limits of worldview-dispensing into an actual education that recognizes and uses our bodies.
Remember that AIO episode where Eugene Meltzner packs his bags for California and victoriously declares, “I’m going on a journey… to find myself!”?
Bernard Walton (every evangelical’s favorite sarcastic saint) replies, “Sounds like a pretty short trip.”
I feel like I’m approaching this year in the same way: with both parts inspirational stirring and bemused pragmatism.
Last winter I made the crazy decision to take a year off from the English classroom, and I spent most of this summer furiously job-hunting, most interviews going something like this:
Saved by the bell (a literal school bell), I got an administrative assistant job just weeks ago in a local high school. While I was initially looking for more distance from a school setting, I’m not going to lie that I look forward to #everyholidayoff and #snowdays.
I thought I would make things easy for myself as I adjust to a new job by packing up my entire apartment and moving across the county. Things I’m gaining: roommates who cook, a dishwasher, a yard with big trees, and a patio. #suburbia
Things I’m leaving behind: cement, my favorite running trail, the clip-clop of buggies, and the infamous Menno Wal-Mart. (Tons more diversity in this part of Lancaster. I went for groceries, and I’m pretty certain I was the only white person there.)
Oh, and did I mention that this summer I also threw out all my beginners’ training plans and ramped up half-marathon training to chase an early fall half-marathon PR. (So laughable because my new neighborhood lies on top of countless, impossibly-mountainous hills.)
A lot of people have been asking me why I quit teaching this year, and I can’t say it better than Zora Neale Hurston: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
2018 is that year for me, and I feel incredibly blessed to have the luxury to take time off to ask deep questions of myself, my career, and of God.
Don’t get me wrong, this year I have an incredible to-do list. I have an incredible reading list. I have an incredible amount of research and academic networking to do. (Step 1: Mennonite Studies conference at University of Winnipeg in November.) And as always, I have writing goals, running goals, and music-learning goals.
“But wait,” my friend said. “Are you going to actually take the time to rest and do the re-focusing that you wanted to do in the first place?”
(Thanks, Nancy, I need the reminder.)
Because at the outset, I scheduled this year as one big fat giant reminder to rest… a sort of personal maintenancing. I have a feeling that the silence of rest will at first sound like a roar. (Especially as I force myself to answer some deep questions.)
You know what they say: “Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow.” I hope to be asking that question for this entire year.
One of my new next-door neighbors is from West Africa, and he said this about Americans: “You ask American, ‘How are you?” They say, ‘I’m fine.’ Could be living catastrophe. Could be shot by bullet with blood coming out, they say, ‘I’m fine.’”
Here’s to a year of asking myself, “How are you?” and answering honestly.
Because the truth is, readers, if you’re running a rat race, you’re allowed to DNF.
“What are you reading?” my bus mates asked me on tour this summer.
“Quiet by Susan Cain. It’s about why introverts deserve to live.” Leave me alone, I’m reading.
The subtitle of the book is “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Besides the Bible, it is one of the most helpful books I have ever read, and you should read it too because #society.
Here are some things I learned:
We Are the 33%
One-third of us humans are introverts.
How We Act
Extroverts are more likely to commit adultery than introverts. Extroverts also function better without sleep. Introverts, however, more often learn from their mistakes, delay gratification, and ask “what if.” Things that are not related to extroversion and introversion include shyness, and being a good leader.
Wait, What’s the Definition?
Defining extroversion and introversion may be best described as being high reactive or low reactive. Introverts react more strongly to highly stimulating environments, causing them to prefer solitude, to dislike multitasking, and to prefer classroom lectures, rather than group discussion. When introverts are described as being “shut down” during group activities, it may be because they are experiencing sensory overload, and are struggling to know which parts of the environment they should pay attention to. This is why some introverts find group activities “exhausting.”
Cain cites an experiment on babies that succumbed them to strange or stimulating environments (balloons popping, the scent of alcohol etc.) Babies who cried loudly and waved their arms in response to these new environments were described as high reactive and grew up to be introverts. Toddlers who were unphased by a strange clown and a robot in the room, were described as low reactive, and grew up to be extroverts; they tended to be unphased by, indeed, readily sought out, new stimuli.
These differences are proven by physical means in adults. Introverts, when tasting lemons, produce more saliva, than extroverts—they are more reactive. Introverts also have physically “thinner skin,” causing them to sweat more (especially when visiting environments that are new to them). This physical reaction hints at the internal warning bells that researchers continually record in introverts’ brains.
(Correspondingly, this also points to a physical embodiment of “cool” for extroverts. The unphased, hip teenager, who always knows what to say, has skin that is quite literally “cooler” than his peers.)
Introverts and the Church
The evangelical mega-church service, with its Jumbotron screens, pumping music, Powerpoint sermons, and Bible-less sanctuaries caters to extroverts. Adam McHugh, an evangelical pastor, after visiting Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, commented, “Everything in the service involved communication. Greeting people, the lengthy sermon, the singing. There was no emphasis on quiet, liturgy, ritual, things that give you space for contemplation.” Personally, I’ve often wondered why it is that I’m so drawn to liturgical services. Perhaps it has more to do with my temperament, than with theological aversions to the evangelicalism of many pseudo-Mennonite churches.
Born This Way
To answer the question if personality is inheritable, Cain responds that “half of the variability in introversion-extroversion is caused by genetic factors.” In other words, 50% of the difference between you and another personality type might be related to genes, but it might not be, too. Personality is categorically related to both nature and nurture. In other words, your in-born temperament is not necessarily your destiny. But. Cain reminds us that “people who inherit certain traits tend to seek out life experiences that reinforce those characteristics.” You’re an extrovert who loves risk? It’s more likely that you’ll keep seeking and encountering excitement and experiences which will compound over time, and before you know it, you’ll be able to achieve things introverts only dream of doing, not because you’re an extrovert, but because you’re an extrovert who has sought out experiences that persons with other temperaments tend not to.
This is why, as psychologist Jerry Miller notes, “the university is filled with introverts. The stereotype of the university professor is accurate for so many people on campus. They like to read; for them there’s nothing more exciting than ideas. And some of this has to do with how they spent their time when they were growing up. If you spend a lot of time charging around, then you have less time for reading and learning.”
Small Talk Vs Deep Talk
A temperament feature that is closely related and highly overlaps with “highly reactive” is “high sensitivity” (read the book for a complex definition). Most introverts find themselves to be highly sensitive, and this may explain why introverts tend to dislike small talk. High sensitives tend to think in complex ways, as proven by an experiment with first graders, which found that high reactive children take much longer in the classroom to choose an answer in matching games, or when reading unfamiliar words. Therefore, “if you’re thinking in more complicated ways,” says Jadzia Jagiellowicz, the lead scientist at Stony Brook, “then talking about the weather or where you went for the holidays is not quite as interesting as talking about values or morality.”
We are famously told that introverts don’t do small talk, but Cain found that introverts do participate in small talk, but normally at the end of the conversation, not the beginning. After introverts have established authenticity in a conversation by discussing a deeper topic, only then do they deem it appropriate to “relax” into small talk.
Shyness and the Animal Kingdom
There’s a whole interesting section about how shyness works in the animal kingdom, and how if shyness is a desirable trait for natural selection, or not. It’s reported that of the 100 species that have noticeable temperaments, 80% of animals within a certain species are extroverts, and 20% are introverts.
Take Trinidadian guppies, for instance. For every 8 outgoing guppies, there are 2 loners in the group, who prefer to “watch and wait” instead of to “just do it.” Neither trait is preferable, necessarily, except for the environment each guppy is in. If guppies find themselves in an area full of pike, their natural predator, scientists notice that the outgoing guppies die off with lightning speed, nature preferring the quieter, more cautious guppy. These cautious types, while still casting a wary eye toward pike, manage to throw off their shyness long enough to mate, and guess what? A whole new generation of fish are born, and in time, the genes mutate, leaving mostly shy guppies. (Aw, lil guys so adorable.) BUT. In areas upstream where there are fewer pike, the outgoing guppies have no qualms with bouncing around, looking for food any old time, and since loner guppies tend to “hunt” less, nature then prefers, and promotes, outgoing guppies.
Guilty Guilty Guilty
Introverts report feeling higher levels of guilt, which is not altogether a bad thing, as Cain reminds us that guilt is “one of the building blocks of conscience.”
Extroverts Get More Jollies
The pleasure “reward center” of an average extrovert’s brain is more sensitive than the average introvert’s. That is, extroverted people report higher levels of pleasure for many types of rewards received. (Perhaps this is why introverts are able to delay gratification more easily than extroverts. They literally get less of a bang out of sex, chocolate cake, and roller coasters.)
This is also why introverted students consistently outperform extroverted students in high school and college. Cain reports, “At the university level, introversion predicts academic performance better than cognitive ability.” Introverts are extremely disciplined, focused problem-solvers while at the same time excelling in assessing long-term goals, while extroverts are less-focused problem-solvers and tend to overlook the long-term, focusing only on the task at hand. In a sense, extroverts’ lack of discipline shows how they may have less grit.
Vocation: Introverts Need to Look Out for Themselves
There are many ways in which the work force (and the classroom) has historically catered to extroverts (including, but not limited to, open floor plans and group work, which by the way Cain effectively proves to be less effective for creativity and productivity.) She also speaks at length about the importance of introverts finding vocations in which their needs are met, where there is enough solitude for insightful discovery.
There are times and places in which introverts can “fake” extroversion, for the sake of vocation, or for a task or topic about which they are very passionate. Oftentimes, though, this pseudo-self gets burned out over time. So if you are in a vocation that requires you to have more “people-time,” or stimulation than you are prepared to healthfully engage, you must work at negotiation with your boss to find the mental rest that you need.
Negotiations, not only with your boss, but also with family members will be tricky if you are working with an extrovert. Cain found one study that suggests that “introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts; extroverts prefer those they compete with.” Therefore, introverts may find it really difficult to negotiate for “a night in,” or “a silent working lunch” because they perceive negotiation as conflict. Conflict is then internally perceived as guilt (for introverts), when extroverts might just be getting their engines started. This is why introverts must continually work at not shutting down, but learning to firmly ask for the things they need.
Cain’s narrative turns personal when she begins to answer the question many introverts have upon reading her (vindicating) research – okay, so but how do I find a vocation that meets my need of being a core personal project? She gives three answers: “First, think back to what you loved to do when you were a child… Second, pay attention to the work you gravitate to… Finally, pay attention to what you envy.” Envy, as nasty as it is, can teach us a lot about our desires.
Interesting, But Who Cares?
You might be asking: why does any of this matter?
Cultures and societies generally prefer, promote, and value one temperament over the other. Cain’s book makes a strong case for American culture preferring extroverts, versus Asian respect for introverted qualities. Yet Cain also points out how a society’s preference for a certain temperament can have long-lasting impacts. Cain makes a grand case that the recession of 2008 resulted in part from American society idealizing extroversion in business schools, and accordingly undermining, and even ignoring, introverts. Her extensive research from some of the top business schools in the nation is mind-boggling as she makes a very tight case. My question is this: if a cultural preference for one quality over another can cause a national financial crisis, what else might we be on the brink of losing, due to our national aversion to the slow and steady deep thinking that so many introverts hold dear?
Let’s think about introversion and extroversion in the church. One of the deepest impacts from my classroom last year was the following realization: society is made up of the kind of students I have in my classroom. In the same way that my high school classrooms consist of readers struggling to decode a single paragraph alongside highly gifted teenage readers who have highly nuanced critical thinking skills, so, too, is our world made up of these individuals. And so too are our churches. As I struggle to create content that meets the need of challenging and engaging ALL types of students, I imagine that our pastors also have an incredible task. Very often we teachers find ourselves “teaching to the middle,” as it were, hoping our highest achieving students are not getting bored, and then scaffolding for others. But as an educator, I ask myself the question: what am I losing by not pushing the rest of the class in the direction of my gifted students, who, many times, are introverts, cultivating a life of deep thinking?
(But for some reason, our classrooms are places of these business models which do not place a heavy emphasis on quiet, personal inquiry and focused individual scholarship, and I am convinced we cheat our students because of this.)
My question for us is this: how are we doing with engaging gifted Christians in the church? And what do we gain to lose by not making space for introverts in the church?
I contend that our churches, our church services, our Sunday schools, and our Bible studies do not engage the type of deep thinking that so many introverts long for. And we’re culturally insecure about it, on all fronts. Introverted thinkers are insecure of their fresh visions, and extroverts, insecure about their own academic habits, make jokes about Biblical study being “too smart” for them.
However, I contend that if we do not make space for liturgy, for focused study, and for a tolerance of scholarship within the church, we risk silencing a significant 33%. We will be left with Christian thinkers who are disappointed by the intellectual life of the church, who are insecure about their God-given temperament, and who quietly shift their intellectual energy elsewhere. And that’s a shame.
Touching down on the sizzling tarmac in Wichita, Kansas two weeks ago felt like coming home. While I was a little apprehensive for the upcoming two weeks of intense choir tour with Oasis Chorale, I was excited to be returning to Hutchinson, KS, home of my young college adventures (some of which you can read about on very old posts here.)
For the past seven years, I’ve spent time every summer singing with the Oasis Chorale, a 40-member Anabaptist a capella choir. This year’s tour started and stopped in Hutchinson, KS, the same town that’s home to Hutchinson Community College, from which I earned my Associate of Arts degree before transferring to The Ohio State University. Moving half-way across the country as a 20-year-old to attend a community college is among one of the weirder decisions I’ve ever made, but it also stands as one of the best decisions, for the Mennonite community there is one of my absolute favorites, and it was my pleasure to call Hutch home for two years.
Driving from Wichita to Hutch and passing miles of razor flat, wide-open green fields, the sun burning through the pale blue sky and humid, windy air, I giggled in glee, “You can see for miles! You can see the horizon! I can finally breathe deeply again!”
While most easterners and Mid-westerners have driven through Kansas, few of them have come to love the plains, and find beauty in them, like I do. I don’t have much of a chance; I was born in Plain City, Ohio, named so for its extremely flat geography. And I do. I love the plains. There’s something about the sunsets, the miles of fields, and (in Kansas) the unrelenting wind, that I find deeply comforting.
Waves of memories came pouring over me as we sailed down highway 96, past the “honking tree,” and past Yoder, KS, the tiny town where I worked during college. We turned on highway 50, heading toward Pleasantview, following the familiar railroad tracks, and I had a flashback to driving home late one night in tornado-like conditions, all alone on the open road, save for a railroad engineer and the piercing headlight of his long black train.
I hopped out of the van into the warm, windy air and breathed deeply again, an impossibly large smile on my face.
The next few days became a blur of Oasis Chorale ritual—warm-ups, arpeggios, vocal fry (“Less pitch! Less pitch!”), finding space, unifying vowel, working pieces start-and-stop mode, and recording an entire hymns album (apart from our choral rep for tour), all the while darting in and out of Hutchinson, with its wide western street grids and period homes. I even managed to drag my choir buddies to Metro, the coffee shop I visited every week during my first two years of college.
Reconnecting with Kansans, I was pleasantly reminded why I love them so much. You know how in every Mennonite Sunday school class there’s at least one lady who is refreshingly honest, unforgivingly practical, sharp as a tack, and very forthright, with absolutely no qualms about calling a spade a spade? Multiply that lady by ten, and that’s basically Kansas. (Readers of Shasta’s Fog will know how I can appreciate those qualities and find them more useful than the guarded, calculated East.)
How fantastic to share with them in song at our first Hutchinson concert, for which, miracle of all miracles, I had my breath under me. (For all our rehearsal days, I just could not make my breath work, but right before concert, my breath returned, and I enjoyed the full concert with, well, another smile on my face.)
Recording over, we began tour with a workshop with Dr. Bartel, a professor at Friends University, and the president of the Kansas Choral Directors Association. Great feedback, including small things like how to sing the word “the.” We were throwing it away, not giving it (and other words) “is-ness.” Such a small detail, but choral musicians know that these tiny significances matter.
Another tour highlight was our choir’s pre-concert chat in Illinois with Westminster student Douglas Byler, composer of this year’s new commission “The Spirit of the Lord.”
And our second IL concert featured these special guests, my baby nieces!
We spent our day off in St. Louis, and furiously googling free things to do, I found that St. Louis is home to the Cathedral Basilica, the largest mosaic-ceiled building in the world. It was stunning.
A small group of us began our adventures at Kaldi’s, a glass-walled coffee shop nestled beneath Citygarden’s trees, and we enjoyed gluten-free dining.
Next, we maneuvered the city bus system for a 30-minute ride to the Basilica. It was then that I discovered St. Louis to be one of the friendliest cities I’ve visited. Our bus driver got out of his bus at the bus exchange to point us to the correct bus to the Basilica, and he let my friend ride for free when she only had a $20 and no change. He also added an extra hour to our bus passes. The Basilica’s tour guide offered tacky jokes and an amazing amount of history for the overwhelming mosaics.
Dinner was at Three Sixty, the restaurant atop the Hilton, where we had a (warm) view of the entire city and the famous St. Louis arch.
The next morning, our choir slipped inside the Old Courthouse, just a few blocks from our hotel, location of the famous Dred Scott trials, who sued the federal government for his freedom. Permitted by a security guard to perform a single choral piece beneath the famous dome, we sang Hawley’s “Not One Sparrow” in dedication to the historical significance of the courthouse.
Not one sparrow is forgotten Even the raven God will feed And the lily of the valley From His bounty hath its need Then shall I not trust Thee, Father In thy mercy have a share And through faith and prayer, my Savior Rest in thy protecting care?
Most of tour, however, is a rat race of hydrating properly, eating properly, guarding your rest like nobody’s business, focused personal rehearsal and memory work on the bus (outside of group rehearsal), and stealing as many gummy bears as possible from the basses. (Gummies = OC’s candy of choice. The urban legend? They’re good for your throat.)
Another immensely rewarding experience was performing a set of songs at the Kansas Choral Directors Association convention in Topeka, KS to a congregation of choir directors, musicians, and All-State high school choir kids. It’s one thing to share your gift with local church audiences; it’s another thing to perform for a room-full of musicians. (You can catch this performance over at OC’s facebook page.)
The other side of Oasis Chorale is collaborating with local choirs, meeting hosts, making new friends, and net-working. Performing in the green-hued, hundred-year-old sanctuary of First Christian Church in Fulton, MO, I met a lovely elderly lady who reminisced about the congregation’s past:
“It’s changed so much. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s our church was so full, you couldn’t find a seat. There was a women’s college in town, and the girls were required to attend church. Wherever the girls went, the boys showed up! But it’s changed so much. It’s not near as full.”
At a local Hutch concert, I also reconnected with middlewestpenandpage after we had worked together in KS seven years ago!
One of the most inspiring moments of tour was meeting Dr. Jana Nisly, to whom was dedicated our commissioned piece, “The Spirit of the Lord.” Director of La Clinica de las Buenas Nuevas in rural El Salvador for 25 years, Dr. Nisly has held Luke 4:18-19 as her clinic’s motto, and this text was adapted by Douglas Byler for the new commission.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, To preach deliverance to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are bruised To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
It was a pleasure to meet Dr. Nisly, to be regaled by doctor stories over a meal, and to hear the mission of her work: “The poor are disregarded in the medical field in El Salvador. To be able to touch them, to treat them, to listen to them… there is no greater joy.” And in her Kansan way, she added, “Now, there’s also nothing more tiring, and it’s too much for me!”
Slowly and quietly the circling gyre of tour floated to the ground, and we found ourselves at our last concert in Wichita, surrounded by friends, family, and the lovely folks at Eastminster Presbyterian. We performed our last concert as the western sun sparkled through the stained-glass windows. We swallowed our emotions, encouraged to perform “just another concert.” I had the most freedom of breath in that concert that I experienced all of tour.
The community of Oasis Chorale is something that amazes me. every. year. It’s a stunning moment to prep breath, vowel, and space, and to be backed by (but also to lead) thousands of vocal muscles that synchronize into a thunderous, unified downbeat of “All Hail.” I don’t take this richness for granted. Nor the spontaneous bus conversations about theology and vocation. Nor can I ignore how singing in choir is a metaphor for the way in which God wants to lead us into more perfect beauty. The experience of being led, and of following, of disciplined rehearsal, of vulnerability and trust within the community of choir mid-concert, and of flexibility to follow new gestures that can only come through the growth of being together… these are things which somehow mimic community led by the Spirit.
Besides this metaphor is the actual musical beauty of my extremely talented friends, whose music-making, in rare moments, makes me feel that dull, physical ache, that only true beauty can. For we know that we are not made for here. As C.S. Lewis says, “We do not merely want to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” It seems that every summer there is at least one memorable solitary moment in which I experience this ache for beauty, a beauty, it seems, that I cannot inhabit. Lewis goes on: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in the world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
We singers regularly discuss the chasm there seems to be between our beautiful two weeks of music-making every summer and the “real world,” as it were, or our vocations, which are more closely touched with earth’s brokenness. It’s therefore a grace to perform, to worship, and to inhabit these texts every evening. Yet we would be remiss to make it all about art. Our director gently reminded us to take time daily to know who we are apart from the choir, apart from the music.
Our pitiful goodbyes being said, we flew home this week, but not before I had one amazing day-on-the-town in good ole’ Hutchinson. My friend Trish and I took a gander around campus, and warm memories washed over me as I walked through Lockman Hall, the campus building where I worked as English Department Scholar, discovered my love of literature, took the hardest exam of my college career (World Mythology), and met some of the finest and most caring English instructors. It’s summer, so professors were out, but I penciled in a note to a professor, met the new secretary, and walked all my favorite routes, including the short-cut across the tennis court.
My ramble across the empty campus was one of the most healing walks of my life. To remember dropping down into Kansas as a shy, scared Mennonite kid in order to maneuver what felt like the impossible unknown, and to look back now… I see that what was, at the time, one of the scariest decisions I had ever made, was one of the safest decisions. While at the time it seemed risky, I now know beyond the shadow of a doubt that enrolling in college in Kansas was unquestionably the best, and safest, decision for me. My experience with faculty and students at Hutchinson Community College and my interaction with the Mennonite community in Hutch unquestionably impacted the person I have become. Kansas was exactly where God wanted me.
My day in Hutch ended with one of my favorite iconically Kansan experiences… a night walk on Kansas dirt roads. My friend and I quietly crunched over sand and gravel, in the darkness, breathing deep breaths of sweet hay, and dust, til we reached Trails West, the only paved road for miles, and we lay down in the middle of the empty road, with our backs on the warm pavement, staring through the darkness at stars, the moon, and shooting stars and fireflies, and talking about all the secret things that girls talk about.
The next morning I rose early before my flight to make my last Kansas dream come true—a run down West Mills, my familiar running route, the dirt road where I became a runner. Trish and I ignored the distant thunder and lightning in the gray summer morning, as we jogged down the lane to the dirt road and headed west.
In one sense, Kansas, and its big sky, is a place where you can think more clearly. You feel closer to God because there’s nothing between the you, the prairie, and the open sky. It is at the same time safe, and terrifying. Lonely, yet inspiring.
With the rolling wind at my back and the miles-wide gray thunderclouds pregnant with lightning resting low above the shadow green fields, I picked my feet up faster, grinding them along the top of the dirt road. I ran on, in freedom, stopping only to spin and spin in absolute joy.
“Oh my goodness, YOU are a CHEEK-CHEWER!” the dental assistant howled in disbelief. Never before had a dentist so quickly shoved an ivory mirror into my face with its blinding light and forced me to gaze at my gaping mouth.
“Do you SEE this scar tissue?!” she jutted her finger toward a solid line of white gunk on the inside of my cheek. I nodded awkwardly, mouth fully extended, feeling as guilty as a kid with his hand in a cookie jar, even though I had never in my life even heard of cheek-chewing, nor had I been convicted of it by so self-assured of a woman.
Do you ever find yourself at the mercy of a painfully informative individual who tells you things about yourself that you cannot possibly want to know? Such was my dental assistant that day as she regaled me about the bit of glue she found on my back tooth that she must clean off that must have been left over from my braces sixteen years ago, before going on to exclaim all about my enlarged frena, specifically my maxiallary labial frenum, and how I might just want to have a frenectomy one of these days because, well, do I notice if I have any relatives with especially large-looking teeth? (Though, to be honest, her hyper-informative state reminded me of myself in the grammar classroom, heh heh.)
But I was most concerned about her shocked exclamations about my cheek.
I went home and did what any self-respecting person would do and googled “Causes and Effects of Cheek-Chewing,” only to learn learn that I will, of course, get mouth cancer from this habit formed, apparently, by stress.
“That is stupid,” I decided.
The next day, I noticed, “I’m chewing my cheek!”
She was right. I tend to clamp down hard on my mouth, even with a part of my cheek in between, especially if I’m nervous, or thinking about something.
Which has caused me to ask the question: why hadn’t any previous dental assistant, in all my tooth-ed life, care to make the observation that I’m a cheek-chewer?!
My little trip to the dentist made me realize two things:
(1) I want dental insurance for Christmas, and
(2) I had learned a lesson. Through thorough inspection, one can see what wasn’t seen before. (And not only, apparently, if one is a brilliant dental hygienist, who has a general clue, including the ability to notice large chunks of missing cheek.)
These days I’m spending less time staring at my hyper-extended mouth in those whippy-blindy tan dentist mirrors, and instead looking into a different kind of mirror. I’m continuing to work on my New Year’s resolutions regarding mental health, which include reading a chapter in Proverbs every day in the month of June. Because who doesn’t need more wisdom in their life?
I find that reading the Proverbs is a bit like looking into a dentist’s mirror. I’m reminded of character attributes that are important but that nobody really talks about.
Statements like, “He who dwells on anxious thoughts chews his cheeks, and receiveth a sound thrashing for it at the gate.” Proverbs 32:9
Actually, more thought-provoking than that is Proverbs 24:16: “Though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.”
I don’t know why this one little statement in the 24th chapter hit me square in the eyes on June 24th, but it did. It made me realize that getting back up, again and again, in the midst of failure, is a feature of the wise. So often, I beat myself up for any little mistake or misstep, and I get so focused on the fact that I MADE A MISTAKE that I barely retain any energy for problem solving. (Oh, and heaven forbid if it be a mistake that other people know I’ve made.)
This month, I’m working on getting back up in spite of failure, and I’m learning to ignore those little voices of self-debt that like to whisper all kinds of passive-aggressive little accusations.
For that is what it is to be wise.
Indeed, I’m convinced that God offers wisdom freely, but you have to be a student of it, and you have to become best friends with a blinkin’ mirror.
Today I’m posting quotes from a marriage book I read and giving opinions about them.
Try not to be shocked that we at Shasta’s Fog have been looking for the perfect book on marriage for a long time. As a Christian who happens to be single, I think it’s important for me to get my theology straight regarding marriage. (Conversely, it would be good for married people in the church to thoughtfully produce a theology on singleness.) However, I find that so much of the literature that’s on the Christian book market related to sexuality, gender roles, and marriage seems to have been written for (and by) people who’ve been married for at least 10 years. These books are full of prescriptive stereotypes (that writers claim to be Scriptural, yet are weak exegetically) and unhelpful advice (regarding gender roles) that is really only applicable in marriage.
So when I found a marriage book written by a New York City pastor whose congregation happens to be 80% single, I giggled with glee, expecting relevancy. (Finally!) Tim Keller, in his introduction, calls it first, “A Book for Married People,” second, “A Book for Unmarried People,” and third, “A Book about the Bible,” writing that the book’s primary goal is “to give both married and unmarried people a vision for what marriage is according to the Bible.” That is the book I was looking for.
(I’ll comment here to say that at different times in my life I would have been more or less ready to read a book about marriage. In other words, I have several single friends who are refusing to read this book along with me, and I totally get why.) For the rest of you who are only a little bit curious, you might pick up a copy.
Benefits of Marriage
You can expect that a pastor whose congregation is 80% single has two tasks in this type of book: (1) talk about the goodness of marriage, and (2) be honest about the hard work it entails. For example, a striking benefit of marriage that singles must wrestle with is the accountability it offers: “Studies show that spouses hold one another to greater levels of personal responsibility and self-discipline that friends or family members can. Just to give one example, single people can spend money unwisely and self-indulgently without anyone to hold them accountable” (17). Finances aside, Keller and his wife Kathy spend much of the rest of the book describing how spiritual accountability is the great benefit, or one of the purposes, of marriage. Singles, then, must decide how to actively seek accountability if it is not “built in” to their homes.
The Cultural Climate of Marriage
In the first chapter, the Kellers describe how society’s view of marriage has changed historically, and they hit the nail on the cultural head, in regards to the current vision of marriage being a self-focused (or self-helpful) means of “finding emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization” in contrast to the historical notion of “finding meaning through self-denial, through giving up one’s freedoms, and binding oneself to the duties of marriage and family” (21). (Because how fun does that sound?)
The studies they cite for self-defined compatibility are laugh-out-loud accurate in their unrealistic idealism, for both genders. Sexual attractiveness aside, men reported that compatibility meant “someone who showed a ‘willingness to take them as they are and not change them’” (24). Women, too, seem to want the best of both worlds: “Both men and women want a marriage in which they can receive emotional and sexual satisfaction from someone who will simply let them ‘be themselves.’ They want a spouse who is fun, intellectually stimulating, sexually attractive, with many common interests, and who, on top of it all, is supportive of their personal goals and of the way they are living now” (26). A little idealistic, don’t you think? But single and married readers alike, recognize that irony. If not, the Kellers drive it home: “You are looking for someone who will not require or demand significant change. You are searching, therefore, for an ideal person—happy, healthy, interesting, content with life. Never before in history has there been a society filled with people so idealistic in what they are seeking in a spouse” (27).
The Kellers recognize that not all millennials are selfish hogs, though—there are some who recognize very much the *cost* of marriage and are terrified of intimacy. To these afraid of losing their freedom, C.S. Lewis is quoted: “If you want to make sure of keeping [your heart] intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.” (Are you getting the picture? This book is thought-provoking!)
The Purpose of Marriage
True to his word that the book is a book about the Bible, Keller takes very great pains to be sure that readers know what marriage is: a bumbling metaphor for Christ, and us. The same outworking of the gospel message is what’s expected for the marriage relationship. The gospel gives us this knowledge: “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope” (44). Keller then explains in detail how this type of self-knowledge is reflected in marriage, and he does so in very practical and helpful ways. (Okay, I did skip a chapter in there, but not the one where he waxes philosophical about reconciling romance with the drudgery of marriage by quoting Kierkegaard.)
Marriage is Friendship
Speaking of practical, one clear emphasis of the book is that a person’s marriage partner should be their best friend. A lot of people marry someone because they are attractive, or because they are financially stable. The Kellers emphasize that those two qualities are extremely unstable, but finding a partner with whom you can enjoy life is a wiser choice. There’s actually a whole chapter devoted to Biblical friendship! (So helpful. I mean, who’s good at making [and keeping] friends these days?) A clear message about Biblical friendship is that, in part, it should sanctify you. Good friends ought to sharpen each other, pointing out the flaws, if necessary. (Oops, sorry, I guess we do have to change.) So while some see the point of marriage as happiness, God sees the point of marriage (and friendship) as holiness. Again, our society reacts to this because “holiness” does not sound fun or sexy. So the Kellers leave us with a solemn reminder from C.S. Lewis for good measure: “He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. (1) To be God, (2) to be like God and to share his goodness in creaturely response, (3) to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe can grow—then we must starve eternally.” Either have superficial friendships and miss out on the real joy of life, or go deep and find the good earth.
Probably the book’s greatest success is that the definition of gender roles is reduced to a single paragraph.
Notice: in this book, it is argued that the gospel is the starting point which helps us know how to be male and female. The book does not start with grandiose definitions of gender, spend pages and pages citing anecdotal evidence for these flimsy definitions, wallow in Timothy for a while, encourage women to sell Plexus, and then plop Jesus at the end. Instead, marriage is defined through the whole of Scripture, and the Trinity is used to explain a bit how gender roles might work. (In marriage alone, though).
Here are quotes for you to argue with your friends about:
“The family model in which the man went out to work and the woman stayed home with the children is really a rather recent development. For centuries, husband and wife (and often children) worked together on the farm or in the shop” (208).
“Christians cannot make a scriptural case for masculine and feminine stereotypes” (210).
“While the principle is clear—that the husband is to be the servant-leader and have ultimate responsibility and authority in the family—the Bible gives almost no details about how that is expressed in concrete behavior” (209).
(It’s almost as if Kathy Keller has heard of Midwestern evangelicalism and winks, “I see you.”)
Singleness and Marriage
I skipped ahead to the chapter on singleness. What’s noticeable is the Kellers’ recognition of Apostle Paul’s ambivalence regarding marital status. In other words, “both being married and not being married are good conditions to be in.” Literally nobody believes that. But here’s a message for the church, married and singles alike: “We should be neither overly elated by getting married nor overly disappointed by not being so—because Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfill us and God’s family and the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us” (222). We are reminded how it is possible to have this perspective through the gospel. Also, it is the gospel that creates communities of believers, the church, which become family for all Christians. (Again, I’m certain that many churches have a very long way to go, to develop this culture that is nevertheless Scriptural.)
Last summer I blogged about gender roles, and I wrote about a quote that I had never before seen in print. This summer I found another one, in the singleness chapter, borrowed from Paige Benton Brown’s article “Singled Out by God for Good.”
“I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me.”
I’ve been thinking about this for days.
At first when I read the quote I got excited because I think it silences a pity party that’s easy to have. Then, the silenced pity party made me extremely zealous for singles to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and become busybodies for the sake of the kingdom. In fact, I found myself scribbling this in a notebook:
“Can we stop idolizing marriage, and can we start privileging singleness? Singles, this is on us. Do we take ourselves seriously? When is the last time we asked how our singleness can help us better serve the Lord? I contend that few singles view their relationship status as an out-flowing of the goodness of God for the sake of effective kingdom work, even though Scripture would allow us to make that claim. I wish singles could know that they are loved, highly valuable individuals in the kingdom of God, pregnant with kinetic potential. I wish singles didn’t view their status as a prison sentence.”
But then I read Brown’s full article, and I paused when I realized she disagreed with my hasty leaps:
“Warped theology is at the heart of attempts to ‘explain’ singleness… ‘As a single you can commit yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord’s work’–as though God requires emotional martyrs to do his work, of which marriage must be no part… Accepting singleness, whether temporary or permanent, does not hinge on speculation about answers God has not given to our list of whys, but rather on celebration of the life he has given. I am not single because I am too spiritually unstable to possibly deserve a husband, nor because I am too spiritually mature to possibly need one. I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me. It is a cosmic impossibility that anything could be better for me right now than being single. The psalmists confirm that I should not want, I shall not want, because no good thing will God withhold from me.”
I invite your reflections in the comments. Meanwhile, I’m welcoming the exchange of self-important busyness for calm rest in the goodness of God.
Now, go read The Meaning of Marriage.
(Also, here is the link to Brown’s full article. If you are single, I caution you—her top-notch sarcasm may leave some of you bleeding. Otherwise, a delightfully refreshing read.)
“I’m looking at doing hopefully a bunch of reading this summer in preparation for college this fall. As an English teacher, do you have any good book suggestions to read? This could be any genre or style.”
Answered with pleasure! Today’s list happens to be for kids heading off to Christian colleges who have already taken high school lit classes that feature fewer authors of the white male variety than are listed here. (Note: were the student heading to a public uni or nonreligious private university, I’d majorly modify this list as well.) Nevertheless, below I’ve featured some canonical works that we just didn’t get to in my lit classes that I recommend as great summer reading.
Theology Nearly All Thinking Christians Have Read
N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope – You need to be reading N.T. Wright because he’s the C.S. Lewis of this century, not to mention a leading New Testament scholar. Most thinking Christians today are intimately familiar with his work. He gives a lot of insight into how the early church thought about the resurrection. Warning: worldview shift ahead.
Wright not so much as presents new topics but instead reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible but we sometimes let contemporary society drown out. What happens, for example, after you die? There is a bodily resurrection, and Wright explains why this is so important, and how that changes how we live here on earth. Wright writes his book because he has picked up on an oddity of Christians that even Harper Lee notices. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s Miss Maudie says, “There are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.” Wright notices the same. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening,” and seeking only to “endure” this life, until they get to the real one, heaven. Wright complicates this, determined to explore the mystery of “Why are we here?” and he does so by “rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church.”
Not a light read, but you may be fooled in the friendly, conversational introduction, which introduces the interesting landscape of British Christianity, which is in fact the viewpoint from which N. T. Wright is writing. Besides being one of the world’s top Bible scholars, he is also a Bishop for the Church of England. (I’ve blogged about Wright’s other writings here.)
C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity – A solid defense and introduction to the Christian faith, this book is an excellent example of Lewis’s direct and accessible style. Read this book if you want a taste for one of the most remarkable apologists of the 20th century.
G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy – Chesterton, the Catholic predecessor to C.S Lewis (who indeed inspired many of Lewis’s writings) offers a defense of Christianity as an Anglican, before he converted to Catholicism 14 years later. Interesting reading, considering the amount of influence he ended up having on C.S. Lewis.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn essays – You should probably know about this Russian critic of the Soviet Union and of anti-God communism. A lot of Christian high school students I know have studied his famous Harvard commencement address from 1978 called “A World Split Apart.” Another writer in the same vein, and of equal importance, is Malcolm Muggeridge, who Ravi Zacharias quotes extensively.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship – Read the theological writings of a German pastor caught in the middle of Nazi Germany. What is the responsibility of a Christian in a secular society? (You should know that Bonhoeffer was ultimately accused of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler and was executed in a concentration camp.) There is no room for hypothetical Hitler questions here; this man lived to tell about it. (Or did he?)
St. Augustine’s Confessions – an important autobiography (theological in nature), the first of its kind, from A.D. 400.
Classics That You Should Have Read in High School
John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – The most classic of British classics, a must-read for every Christian.
George Orwell’s 1984 – An English dystopian novel, published in 1949, that’s all about government surveillance and public manipulation. Nearly everyone in college has read it.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy – Read the books or watch the movies. Without question, you should have familiarity with Tolkien’s work.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas*– a memoir from 1845 that was an exceedingly influential piece of abolitionist literature. Features uncomfortable truths about slave life and the “Christian” South.
Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery* – one of the most popular African American autobiographies
The Federalist Papers and/or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense– You should probably have some familiarity with these great American political classics. Both will probably be very slow reading, heh heh.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – A very long Russian novel about belief, doubt, mercy, and patricide.
Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace – An even longer Russian novel about war and humans… broken, beautiful humans. (Be sure to read only the newest translations. I break them down here.)
William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech – The context in which Faulkner gave this speech illuminates its importance.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet – Read this Shakespeare play about a conflicted teenager, caught between doing the right thing and committing suicide. Or, if you can, find any Shakespeare play being performed in a local park this summer, read the Sparknotes ahead of time, invite a girl, and pack some popcorn.
Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations – a good classic to have under your belt, very Dickensian in style, and a little heart-warming. (Though it should be called Denied Expectations. Poor Pip.)
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin* – the anti-slavery novel that Abraham Lincoln claimed basically started the Civil War
Books for the Lake – Reading That Your Professors Will Not Assign, but Are Nevertheless Helpful
Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy – The perfect novel for the lake (or should I say, the cabin). Large glass of sweet tea optional. A true story about a pagan who finds his soul mate, rides an academic high, and becomes friends with C.S. Lewis. A cancer diagnosis means he ultimately must choose between his beloved wife and the Christian faith.
Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus* – This riveting personal narrative on Qureshi’s journey out of Ahmadiyya Islam to Christianity includes a glimpse into the importance of inerrancy within Islam. (Christians think THEY’RE Biblicists?) Qureshi’s narrative is gripping, risky, and thought-provoking as he offers a beautiful picture of Islam yet reveals how his allegiance to scholarship and academia ultimately forced him to reject Islam and embrace Christianity and the solidness of its Scriptures. A truly moving testimony.
Charles C. Mann’s 1491 – While the jury’s still out on the academic credibility of Mann’s research, this nonfiction book is nevertheless fun reading. What happened in 1492? Columbus sailed the ocean blue! But what was America like in 1491 before Europeans arrived? Many of our American history books begin with the story of Spanish explorers, and very little space is devoted to the history of indigenous people. This book gives a fuller history of pre-Columbian America along with ground-breaking research that brings into question many of our assumptions about our land before colonization, including assumptions like:
“The New World was relatively unpopulated.”
“Native Americans lived in the wilderness and never touched it.”
“Native Americans were unsophisticated and lived in simple societies compared to Europeans at the time.”
“Cities didn’t exist.”
However, did you know that the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was larger than any European city at the time and also had running water?! High school students of mine have done book reports on this book, giving it rave reviews.
Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz – Irreverent essays about the Christian bubble. Includes Don’s experiences at the secular-of-all-secular colleges, Reed College.
Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey* – A non-kosher exposé on the plight of illegal immigrants in the U.S. Journalist Nazario records the experiences of a Honduran boy who crosses the Mexican border to find his mother in North Carolina. Not recommended for Republicans.
Kelly Monroe Kullburg’s Finding God Beyond Harvard* – It may be because of the academic landscape described in this book that Sattler College was founded. I review the book here.
Finding God at Harvard* – Again, I briefly describe the book here.
Mary Poplin’s Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Meaningful Work and Service* – The story of American educator Mary Poplin’s experiences volunteering with Mother Teresa in the 90s.
Chaim Potok’s The Chosen – This novel about a conservative Hasidic Jewish community in NYC during the 1930s is as comfortable and enjoyable as your favorite cousin.
Lee Strobel’s A Case for Christ or A Case for Faith – Vanilla and evangelical, but both very readable in style. Strobel comes to faith while working as an investigative journalist for theChicago Tribune.
Rosaria Butterfield’s Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert*– Because you ought to know how some in the homosexual community feel about Christians.
Selected Poetry, Because You’re Not a Caveman
John Milton’s Paradise Lost – You don’t have to read the whole thing (it’s over 10,000 lines long), but you should know that this epic poem exists. Just read a section or two.
T. S. Eliot poetry, maybe “The Waste Land”– Famous modernist poet despairs after WWI. Finish up with Faulkner’s Nobel prize speech after.
Online Resources (Including News Sites) for Thinking Young People
Veritas Forums on Youtube – The Veritas Forum was founded at Harvard in 1992, and it is an organization which now serves over 50 American and international universities. Veritas hosts forums and speakers on college campuses in order “to inspire the shapers of tomorrow’s culture to connect their hardest questions with the person and story of Jesus Christ.” On Youtube, you can find Veritas Forums featuring (1) TED-talk like content, (2) full debates, or even (3) congenial conversations related to most fields of study in the university. A great resource for skeptics and thinking Christians. In fact, it may have been a Veritas forum that pointed me to Poplin’s book on Mother Teresa.
Random speeches on Youtube (or podcasts) by N.T. Wright, John Lennox, and/or Tim Keller, all important authors and apologists with whom you should be familiar.
The New Yorker – a magazine of current events reporting. Snobby academic writing at its finest. Read one online article a week.
First Things – This publication calls itself “America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion & Public Life.” Noticeably Catholic, the online version offers thoughtful (and conservative) social critique. Read one article a week.
BBC app – Skim the headlines of the Top Stories every day. Compare them to the headlines of the Popular Stories.
New York Times app – Once a week, skim the headlines of the Most Popular stories. Read anything interesting. You get access to 10 free articles a month.
NPR, especially the program “the 1A” – A co-worker recently told me that it’s dangerous to listen to NPR because they find that then you have a knowledge base that not everyone else has. In other words, it’s informative.