Wednesday, February 17, 2010

only ashes

(Editor's note: I'm currently working on a couple things that are not ready for publication so I'm going to share with you a blog entry I wrote for Ash Wednesday last year. Also, I stole the title from this Something Corporate song that is awesome.)

Today is Ash Wednesday. I'm not sure that Baptists really recognize Ash Wednesday. I was baptized Catholic and once you get the holy water on you, you never really get it to completely come off. Even if you later become a Baptist. The point of the tradition is to mark a day of repentance before we transition into the season of Lent for the Christian calendar.

Christians celebrate Lent in different ways, but many of my friends and family choose to use these 46 days before Easter to either give up something or dedicate themselves anew to something. Think of it like a New Year's resolution but made to Jesus. Might be more fun, definitely more guilt involved. Anyway, so this year I decided to give up sweets for 2 reasons: a) I knew it would be hard for me to do with my massive sweet tooth and b) it doesn't hurt to live a healthier, more disciplined lifestyle. I am about 16 hours in at this point and I am gripping. I find myself equivocating on the commitment. Chocolate is obviously out but what about Pop Tarts? How sweet is peanut butter really? Can I put sugar in my coffee? Would Jesus be mad if I got all hyped up on Mountain Dew right now?

It occurs to me that I might be missing the point.

It reminds me of the story of the Transfiguration. Matthew tells the story this way is his gospel.

"Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Peter said to Jesus, 'Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.' While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, 'This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!' When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified." Matthew 17:1-6

This is what it takes to get their attention finally. Really? All the healing and miracles and feeding of five thousands and raising people from the dead just didn't do the trick? God has to bring in the cameo appearances from Moses and Elijah and put the super glow effect on Jesus' face and clothes just to get them to listen!

That's me.

I'm that guy that has to go through every other option, to bargain, to cajole, and to doubt before I finally just stop and pay attention. It takes all that for me to realize that God really just wants to bring me close and teach me what it means to truly follow Him and become like Him. Yeah, it's supposed to be hard to give up something you love, even if just for a time. It drives you to prayer and reliance on Christ.

As we go through the Believe project together and as we progress through the season of Lent towards Easter, I hope we can let God show us again just how amazing and transformational is His mission to the world. I hope that when He asks us to make small sacrifices we realize that what we sacrifice today will be paid back tenfold in days to come. But most of all, I hope that when we doubt and when we wander and when we fall that we'll take the time to pray and to see Jesus for who He is once again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

my funny valentine or why valentine's day is corporate and that's ok

This is a defense of love.

Or maybe more appropriately "Eros." I will refer to it as such for the rest of this essay for simplicity's sake and also because this is how C.S. Lewis dubs it in his book The Four Loves, which forms the basis of my writing.

Every year as the calendar days begin to fall precipitously and dangerously toward February 14, Eros begins to take fire from all sides.

"Valentine's Day is so corporate and commercialized."  "It's nothing but a capitalist conspiracy among the greeting card companies to prop up a make-believe holiday to boost a slow month in sales."  (What?  So you're telling me I can't get a Black History Month card with a sweet picture of George Washington Carver recounting the numerous and glorious uses of the peanut?  And why is this the only thing I can remember from countless public school history classes taught during the month of February?)

So people declare their independence of the evil capitalist machinery, defy the man, and declare their own holidays.  Anti-Valentine's Day.  Ferris Wheel Day.  National Singlehood Awareness Day.  And on and on.  Mostly this is done out of the bitterness that one does not have an appointed valentine to celebrate the day with.  In my opinion though, the lady (or man) doth protest too much.  If anyone declares their worship for Eros, it is the unValentines.  There is no opt-out for love.  We will all love something.  The question is what.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Now I could devote several hundred words to debunking the myth that the evil corporate behemoths of Hallmark and Godiva have manipulated our emotions by forcing their black holiday on us all.  But that's what Wikipedia is for.  And a quick reading of the Valentine's Day entry will show you that the name originates with early Christian martyrs and draws its romantic roots from the days of Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales.

But skip that and let's use a little rhetorical device we lawyers refer to as "assuming arguendo."  So I grant your point: Valentine's Day is a corporate sellout of a holiday foisted upon us as a cruel hoax to convince us to buy copious amounts of greeting cards and chocolates.  My response: So what?

Have you ever noticed that corporations always co-opt stuff that is awesome?  Like Christmas and love and puppies.  We just sat a Super Bowl last week that half the people in the audience were watching solely for the purpose of being sold products through ingenious advertising.  Thousands of people tuned in via the internet for the Steve Jobs to unleash his brilliant move forward in technology for a supersize iPod touch.  When is the last time you saw a corporation spending $2.5 million for a commercial advocating the many desirable qualities of strained peas?  Corporations don't make us want things.  They find things we already want and find ways to make money off selling it to us.

One thing we definitely want, have always wanted, and will always want for as long as the human race subsists is Eros.

So what defines our love/hate relationship with Eros?  Fear.  We are afraid.  And, on the one hand, we have good reason to fear.  Eros is a fearful and brutal master of our emotions, our physical and spiritual well-being.  Never do we feel closer to the truly divine, the unconditional state of love reserved for God Himself then when we declare of our beloved, "anything for you."  We have a healthy distrust of such heavenly, eternal feelings expressed on the drab, mortal earth.  As Lewis writes, "When natural things look most divine, the demoniac is just round the corner."

Yet Eros, fickle Eros, the subject of countless songs and limitless reveries, of all the types of love is the most transitory.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  For no reason but with much protestation.  As easily as one can fall in love without realizing the event is even taking place, the sudden realization of being out of love may come as the even greater surprise to the afflicted party.  This is our second fear and is both unwise and unvirtuous.  While the first was prudent for protecting our right relationship and allegiance with Love Himself, the second fear is a betrayal of that relationship and turning away from the spirit-discerning fire that God presents in the form of Eros.  Again, Lewis explains it much better than I could ever hope.
Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as 'Careful! This might lead you to suffering.' ... When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ.  If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities.  I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less.

When I took my first job out of law school, I found myself for the first time with a 401k to manage and sitting in front of a financial adviser asking me the foreign yet primary philosophical question of my existence, "Would you like a low, moderate, or high risk of investment?"  You see, in life, there will be risk.  The only question is how much we will risk, how brave we will be.  There are more grievous sins in this life than cowardice.  Like foolishness.  The foolishness of believing that we can have one attitude toward Eros and our fellow human beings without having that attitude affect our relationship with God.  How can we ever lead ourselves to believe that we could take some safe route, low-risk strategy toward love in this life while expecting to be united to Love Himself in the next?
If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not.  We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour.  If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it. 

A survey of the biblical narrative leaves one thoroughly convinced that the story of human existence is the Love Story, the one of which all the Dear Johns and Valentine's Days of the world are but faint and imperfect shadows.  The mystery to which Saint Paul referred to as the fated marriage of Christ and his bride, the Church.  Love did not pursue us carefully but recklessly from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane, from Mount Sinai to Mount Calvary.

We should not turn our backs on Saint Valentine's Day.  It is truly a holy day.  And in this world of hate, we could use a few more days to celebrate Love.

(This installment is a second excerpt from my future book, How to Date an Unattainable Woman and Other Things I Don't Know.  Previously excerpted here.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

as freedom is a breakfastfood

I never thought of myself as one of those lock-yourself-away-in-a-closet-awaiting-the-end-times, conspiracy freak, fear-mongering, technology haters until I read the following passage from an essay entitled "FAIL" by Chuck Klosterman.
When it's warm out I like to sit inside air-conditioned rooms. ...

Yet what am I giving up in order to have a 70 degree living room in July?

Nothing that's particularly important to me.

For the air conditioner to work, I need to live in a building that has electricity, so I have to connected to the rest of society.  That's fine.  That's no problem.  Of course, to be accepted by society, I have to accept the rules and laws of community living.  That's fine, too.  Now, to thrive and flourish and afford my electric bill, I will also have to earn money.  But that's okay--most jobs are social and many are enriching and unnecessary.  However, the only way to earn money is to do something (or provide something) that is valued by other people.  And since I don't get to decide what other people value, what I do to make a living is not really my decision.  So--in order to have air-conditioning--I will agree to live in a specific place with other people, following whatever rules happen to exist there, all while working at a job that was constructed by someone else for their benefit.

In order to have a 70-degree living room, I give up almost everything.

Yet nothing that's particularly important to me.

The point is: "Technology is a more powerful social force than the aspiration for freedom."

We don't value freedom.  We constantly make decisions that we know will result in the forfeiting of our freedoms and we do so for the worst of all reasons: comfort.

We don't value freedom and we will trade it for almost anything.

Our freedoms are daily, constantly under assault and almost never in the ways we would expect.

For a minor example, just take a look at the sports world.  This week all eyes are focused on Miami, the site of Super Bowl XLIV.  The Colts' quarterback, Peyton Manning, is the center of attention as he is the most talented player in Sunday's game if not in the game of football today.  Yet he has only won one Super Bowl in a career marked by statistical accolades and accomplishments.  If the Colts emerge victorious on Sunday night, almost every commentator on every sports station in the world will be anointing him as the greatest quarterback in the history of the National Football League.

This will happen for two reasons.  One, sports commentators need something to talk about and they always want to claim that we are watching the greatest player to ever play the game.  Historically great players sell out stadiums and lead to huge television contracts for the networks.  They sell commercials, they move merchandise, and they inspire us to greatness ourselves.

That is precisely why we should never proclaim someone the greatest to play their particular position until we are really sure about it.  There's more than just money on the line.

The second reason is because Peyton Manning fits a quarterback archetype that has been in place since long before he ever stepped on a football field.  Nevermind that he lacks the golden arm of Johnny Unitas or the charisma of Joe Namath or the grit and toughness of Terry Bradshaw or the cool demeanor of the ultimate winner Joe Montana.

After all, he comes to the line on each play screaming like a cracked-out paranoid schizophrenic with Tourette's syndrome.  That's got to count for something, right?

Color me unimpressed.  That's why I will never think Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time.  Because I don't buy into the hype.  Manning didn't invent the audible.  He's just a smart quarterback who has played on above average teams and won Super Bowl(s) in years in which there were no great teams out there to knock him out of the playoffs.

But commentators will anoint him nonetheless.  Because it is easier to join the chorus of the crowd than to risk singing off key.

We don't want freedom because we fear the burden that freedom carries.

In an example wholly foreign to discussions of football, consider the movement within young evangelical churches to rekindle the theology of John Calvin.

In short, the newly reformed evangelical movement takes the position that freedom is an illusion and that God in his sovereignty controls "even our smallest decisions."

This, of course, leads to a host of theological problems for people who are considering the existence of evil in the world and trying to reconcile that with the idea of a good and omnipotent God.  Why does God allow evil people to prosper while the virtuous continue to suffer?  Why did God even bother to create human beings at all if they were merely going to be automatons and pawns in a grander struggle ever frustrated by their inability to exercise free will?  How can a creation without the ability to make its own choices be held to the consequences because of sin?  Why create a world where Jesus Christ would have to suffer a horrific, undignified death on a cross if sin and evil could have been prevented if God was just more careful in His stewardship of creation?

As you might be able to tell, I'm no Calvinist.

But the question is: Why is anyone?  It is a completely unsatisfying theology ending only in fatalism and despair when put in the context of a world of suffering and in light of the inability of human beings to effect any real change in the world.

We're scared to be free.  We fear what the realization of our own freedom might be.  So we would rather have our theology dictated to us by John Piper than take the time to read the Bible for ourselves and draw our own conclusions.  Certainly, God never intended for Christians to bother with an original thought or a new theology after his greatest and final prophet John Calvin left the earth.

We don't want to think for ourselves.  It's easier this way.  For one, if we rely on our own thoughts, we could end up making mistakes.  We could end up being wrong.

Well, you can count me in the same camp as Galileo who said, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

I would rather take the risky, adventurous path of freedom and end up being wrong than be right but in chains.  I would rather worship a God who loves me than one who controls me.

Great theologians, quarterbacks, and commentators took risks and felt freedom.  We cannot abandon that freedom for a comfortable existence now.

And if we do, then there's no greatness left in us.