Monthly Archives: November 2012

Behold, I Tell You a (Parenting) Mystery

I was talking recently with a friend about his frustrations with an older child’s reckless behavior.

“We did it by the book, Tim.  We were the perfect parents – what happened?”

I wouldn’t argue with him.  He and his wife are wonderful people and great parents.  His comments call to mind one of the mystifying dynamics of family life.

There are great parents who’ve had very difficult kids.  It’s possible for disastrous parents to end up with model kids.

There are also disastrous parents with problematic kids.  And many of us know model parents with model kids.

There are hundreds of things to say about parenting.  I’m not trying to undermine them or add to them.  I think we ought to pursue growth as parents and nurture our families thoughtfully and intentionally.

This is merely an observation: Life is complicated.   There are no guaranteed outcomes. 

No matter the environment, we’re all sinful, broken people in need of God’s grace and one another’s love.

It just seems to me that the first step toward being perfect parents and raising perfect kids is throwing out that notion as a foolish idolatry.

An Economics of Holiness

From James K. A. Smith’s introduction to Daniel Bell’s new book, The Economy of Desire.  It looks brilliant and I’m eager to jump in!

This world is “postmodern” not because it signals some romantic escape from the modern or some jarring break with modernity but because it is one completely saturated and dominated by the forces of modernity.  Postmodernity isn’t a world where modernity has failed; it is the world where modernity is all in all.  Or as Daniel Bell puts it below, it’s the world where “we’re all capitalists now.”

Most Christian thinking about discipleship and spiritual formation has failed to appreciate this reality.  Indeed, much of contemporary North American Christianity not only blithely rolls along with these realities; in many ways, it also encourages and contributes to it with a vast cottage industry of Christianized consumption.  By locating the challenges for Christian discipleship in arcane cults or sexual temptation or the “secularizing” forces of Supreme Court, evangelicalism tends to miss the fact that the great tempter of our age is Walmart.  The tempter does not roam about as a horrifying monster, but as an angel of light who spends most of his time at the mall.

. . . at the core of Bell’s analysis and argument is a concept that should revolutionize how you think about discipleship and spiritual formation: desire.  Bell helps us to appreciate that there is an economics of desire—that our desire is primed and pointed by “technologies” that habituate us toward certain ends.  The question isn’t whether we’ll be subject to an “economy,” but which.

Many Christians have failed to see what’s at stake in contemporary “postmodern” life—dominated as it is by a globalized market and the rhythms of consumption—because we still tend to think that Christian faith is an “intellectual” matter: a matter of what propositions we believe, what doctrines we subscribe to, what Book we adhere to.  And conversely, we tend to think of economics as a “neutral” matter of distribution and exchange.  Because of these biases, we can too easily miss the fact that Christian faith is at root a matter of what we love—what (and Whom) we desire.  If we forget that, or overlook that, we’ll also overlook all the ways that the rituals of “late capitalism” shape and form and aim our desire to worship rival gods.

[T]he practices of Christian discipleship and the rituals of Christian worship [are] the lineaments of an alternative economy—a “kingdom come” economics that orders the world otherwise, bearing witness to the strange, upside-down economy of a crucified-now-risen King.

He invites us to nothing less than a holy economy.

Teenagers: Some Scattered Thoughts

I’m not sure how we got here so fast, but Sarah and I find ourselves the parents of three teenagers.  Maddie is 18, Jake is 16, and Riley is nearly 14.

Life has taken a weird form for us.  We negotiate multiple schedules, wade through the daily deluge of mail from colleges for the older two, and work through big decisions based on imminent empty-nester status.

This is all very unsettling to me.  Where has the time gone?

I’ve been trying to get my head around all of this on my walks recently.  I don’t think I’m getting anywhere close.

But I’m struck by the same few thoughts.

First, I’m impressed by my parents.  I’m discovering that it takes wisdom to change and adapt as children develop and grow.  Looking back, my parents did this pretty well.

Second, I really like our kids.  They’re smart, funny, and really interesting.

When Sarah and I were (far too) young parents of small children, we inhabited a church community very anxious about raising perfect kids.  How else would God be glorified but through perfectly-behaved 3 year-olds who could sit quietly through long church services?

I can see now that “God’s glory” was just rhetoric that masked parental pride, but all that social pressure made us pretty frustrated and miserable parents.

It’s been ages since we stopped treating them as projects and began enjoying them as people.  That was a big turn for us, and we find ourselves seriously delighting in our kids.

Third, I’m going to really miss them.  Conceivably, Maddie and Jake will both move out of the house in the next year and a half.

This is tough to think about.

I find myself alternately initiating two very different conversations.  One day, I’m talking about choosing a major, and the next I’m encouraging them to consider taking a year out before heading off to college.

I’m not looking forward to their leaving home.

Fourth, in the modern West, raising kids often coincides with building a career.  It isn’t easy to give both the attention they require.  I don’t know what else to say about that other than this arrangement is ripe for disaster.

Fifth, If I ever write a parenting book, I’m going to title it, Don’t Worry, You’ll Screw It Up: But If You Learn to Laugh at Yourself, They’ll Love You Anyway.

Van Gogh on Friendship

Thanks to a friend who gave it to me, I’m blazing through Andre Agassi’s fascinating autobiography, Open.  I may have some more to say about it down the road, since Agassi is a thoughtful person who reflects on so many different aspects of relationships and sports.

He opens with a quote from Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother.  It captures very nicely how close friends draw us out, shape us, and satisfy us with deep soul-resonance:

One cannot always tell what it is that keeps us shut in, confines us, seems to bury us, but still one feels certain barriers, certain gates, certain walls.  Is all this imagination, fantasy?  I do not think so.  And then one asks: My God!  Is it for long, is it for ever, is it for eternity?  Do you know what frees one from this captivity?  It is very deep serious affection.  Being friends, being brothers, love, that is what opens the prison by supreme power, by some magic force.

The Church & the Powers

I’m reading Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers again, in preparation for an upcoming project.  I’m going to quibble with his identification of the powers, but I find his articulation of the social and institutional manifestations of the powers at times simply masterful.

On the need of the church to resist adopting the power strategies of the culture:

When the Roman archons (magistrates) ordered the early Christians to worship the imperial spirit or genius, they refused, kneeling instead and offering prayers on the emperor’s behalf to God.  This seemingly innocuous act was far more exasperating and revolutionary than outright rebellion would have been.  Rebellion simply acknowledges the absoluteness and ultimacy of the emperor’s power, and attempts to seize it.  Prayer denies that ultimacy altogether by acknowledging a higher power.  Rebellion would have focused solely on the physical institution and its current incumbents and attempted to displace them by an act of superior force.  But prayer challenged the very spirituality of the empire itself and called the empire’s “angel,” as it were, before the judgment seat of God.

Such sedition could not go unpunished.  With rebels the solution was simple.  No one challenged the state’s right to execute rebels.  They had bought into the power-game on the empire’s terms and lost, and the rules of the game required their liquidation.  The rebels themselves know this before they started.  But what happens when a state executes those who are praying for it?  When Christians knelt in the Colosseum to pray as lions bore down on them, something sullied the audience’s thirst for revenge.  Even in death these Christians were not only challenging the ultimacy of the emperor and the “spirit” of empire but also demonstrating the emperor’s powerlessness to impose his will even by death.  The final sanction had been publicly robbed of its power.  Even as the lions lapped the blood of the saints, Caesar was stripped of his arms and led captive in Christ’s triumphal procession.  His authority was shown to be only penultimate after all.  And even those who wished most to deny such a thing were forced, by the very punishment they chose to inflict, to behold its truth.  It was a contest of all the brute force of Rome against a small sect that merely prayed . . .

Wink concludes that the contemporary church must cultivate fresh strategies that will embody the gospel and also expose cultural idolatries.

This is not to suggest that in most circumstances prayer is enough, but in that situation it was the most radical response imaginable.  Then, “Jesus is Lord” shook the foundations of an empire; in the “free” world today, “Jesus is Lord” bumper stickers mainly occasion yawns . . .  But there are countries where “Jesus, friend of the poor” can get you killed.  Fidelity to the gospel lies not in repeating its slogans but in plunging the prevailing idolatries into its corrosive acids.

* Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, pp. 110-111.

Take a Closer Look!

We had an interesting discussion last night about Paul’s question in Galatians 5:7, where he asks, “who hindered you from obeying the truth?”

It seems likely that Paul knows the identity of the Jewish-Christian missionaries.  Those who brought a report to Paul may have given him their names, though we don’t that for sure.  But he refers again to “whoever he is” in v. 10.

But Paul refers repeatedly to them as “anyone,” “whoever,” and other such language (1:8, 9; 3:10; 5:7, 10).  It seems that one of Paul’s strategies is to direct the Galatians’ attention to the teachers as they hear the letter read aloud, asking themselves, What sort of people are they?

The Galatians already know Paul and his mode of ministry.  They’ve seen him at his worst—beaten up and badly wounded (4:13-16).  They’ve seen Paul’s cruciform ministry posture and his commitment to them.

Paul is forcing them to confront their own gullibility.  Have they really taken a close look at those to whom they are listening?  Have they seen their lives?  Can they be sure of their motives?  Just who are these people?

Scripture places a seriously high priority on paying attention to those who have proven faithful.  Conversely, it’s our responsibility to take a good look at the lives of purported spiritual authorities.  If they prove manipulative or to be motivated wrongly, we’re fools to give them any attention.

Paul: Rhetorician or Pastor?

A while ago I posted a bit on Romans, arguing that Paul’s letter is not a theological treatise but a pastoral letter.

Most commentaries contain a similar reminder.  “Let’s remember,” they begin, “that it’s not as though Paul is a professional theologian writing his magnum opus or a systematic theological treatise.  He’s a missionary and pastor, writing to an actual church of real people, not to professors of theology.”

But they invariably proceed to treat Paul’s letter as if he were a professional theologian writing his magnum opus or a systematic theological treatise.

This drives me nuts.  Because I read commentaries like I watch football, I end up exclaiming out loud while throwing my hands in the air.

One place—among many others—where this is obvious is commentators’ treatments of Romans 2.  Paul castigates the one who passes judgment beginning in v. 1 and many commentaries imagine Paul as something of a rhetorician dialoging with an imaginary interlocutor.

His diatribe is against “the typical Jew” or the self-satisfied legalist or the typical hypocrite who says one thing but does another.

Is all of this necessary?  Whatever happened to Pastor Paul and the actual church of real people?

Might it be the case—this is radical, so hold on to your hats—that Paul’s confrontation of “everyone who passes judgment” is directed at anyone in one of the two factions in the Roman church that is passing judgment on those in the other faction?

What is wrong with imagining that Paul is going after those who are being divisive in that community?

It sure seems that the rest of the letter is pastoral confrontation of precisely that problem.  Factions have developed along ethnic lines.  They are competing for community control and the tragic result is discouraged communal breakdown.

There are other points at which commentators on Romans forget themselves, or at least what they’ve written in their introductions.  But I just wonder if much of it begins with their handling of Romans 2.

Resisting the Genius of Evil

After posting about a particular genius of evil, I enjoyed a great talk with a friend over a wonderfully sloppy burrito that furthered some personal reflections on this dynamic in ministry settings.

We talked about the temptation to respond sinfully when a ministry partner, for whatever reason, repeatedly takes verbal shots at us in public settings.

(Side note: the pervasive realities of resentment, a competitive spirit, and “professional jealousy” among ministers [and biblical scholars!] are far too seldom drawn into the light and exposed to serious and redemptive critique).

When we’re sinned against, we are tempted to sin in return.  Why are we so drawn to such responses even though we know they won’t do any good?

The source of temptation is the aroused anger and desires for revenge that are so powerful they feel impossible to overcome.

And we sense that to do nothing—to respond by not retaliating—will guarantee that the injustice will only continue.  If we don’t respond, we will continue to be treated badly.

To simply be reminded that “two wrongs don’t make a right” carries no compelling force in the midst of a conflict.  The emotions we feel are too overpowering.

There is at least one very good reason, however, to resist retaliating.  Remember, the genius of evil is in the illusion that we can solve a problem or achieve a satisfying result of justice through an evil response.  It feels that I’ll really “get through” to this person or truly “send a message” if I speak in this seriously hurtful way or make this devastating response.

Such a course, however, eliminates all hope that I’ll create the conditions in which the problem will be solved.

I will have joined the cause of destruction, furthering the spread of evil, enflaming the sinful dynamics that enslave others and now bind me, ensuring that sinful responses and counter-responses perpetuate.

I may do the intended damage, but I will not escape the self-destruction.

This is why Paul says that we need to resist and stand firm “in the evil day” (Eph. 6:13).  The environment itself is evil.  We inhabit an interconnected matrix of corruption.  If we act according to this present evil age, we knit ourselves to its enslaving and destructive dynamics and guarantee that we will participate in its ultimate end.

The genius of evil is to draw us into the enslaving dynamics of sin by giving in to the temptation to solve evil by doing evil.

We may feel that we will set things right by taking an evil course, but we only enslave ourselves, uniting ourselves to chaotic forces of destruction by an evil response.

So, how do we respond?  Stay tuned . . .

Prayer for the Weekend

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Genius of Evil

Evil has many dimensions, aspects, and components, but I’ve been struck lately by a particular genius of evil.  Evil has a multiplying effect in that sin tends to provoke sin.

That is, when we are sinned against, we are so provoked that we can only imagine responding by sinning.  And when we encounter outrageous evil, our sense of justice is provoked  Because of our corruption, however, we tend to fantasize about some kind of retaliation that will be so violent that it will satisfy our sense of outrage, setting things right.

Sin begets and provokes further sin.

I was struck again by this during the past election season.  We encounter outrageous political rhetoric for or against this or that person or view.  We may be so completely offended that we respond angrily with sinful speech.  This invites, in return, further vituperation and we are locked in a war of words without any possible winner.

The escalating violence between Israel and Hamas is another example.  Without trying to sort out who’s right and who’s wrong, what’s clear is that the cycle of violence will unfold predictably and tragically.

This dynamic works in families and work environments, too.  I am wronged or feel slighted, so I sin against my spouse, child, parent, or sibling.  This invites retaliation in some form that will, in turn, provoke a response and counter-response.  My feeling of being wronged or misunderstood fuels a response that fosters destruction.

It’s just astounding to stand back and behold the genius of evil—its multiplying effect and how it runs down social networks, increasing and infecting everything.