Tuesday, July 30, 2013


This is intended to be a companion post (maybe second in a trilogy) to my earlier post on Marriage.

Babies, outside of the biologically obvious (when changing a diaper), don't have gender - not really. My daughter's hair has grown slowly; she's often confused for a boy. Everyone is really apologetic when they get it wrong. I'm not sure why. Outside of societally accepted color schemes, there's very little way to tell.

Prior to WWII, all babies essentially wore white gowns until they were three or so. Why? Because babies poop. A lot. If your baby poops and color safe bleach hasn't been invented yet, white is the easiest color to keep clean. It was a near universal attitude that during those first few years, they're babies before they're anything else.

It was only as the US economy transitioned to a consumption-based model, that pink and blue came into style. Clothing companies needed ways to sell baby clothes and compete for market share. Unisex white gowns wouldn't bring in the dough. Fast forward 70 years and we've got such differentiated clothes, even someone (like myself) attempting to keep neutrality in my daughter's wardrobe is completely befuddled (really, you take the same exact outfit with a bear on the front, but you have to put a bow on one and overalls on the other? Really?). The colors and designs of her clothes have been decided by someone else, some place else - and I'm told it only gets worse as they grow older.

We certainly have plenty of societal and historical expectations - and plenty of stereotypes - but what does gender actually mean? Are there things only men should do and things only women should do? What if you're a man who doesn't do "man" things or a woman who isn't down with the female list?

There is the obvious - men and women have different reproductive organs. There are clear delineations between roles in reproduction. Even the intersex (humans born with some combination of male and female genitalia) cannot be either a mother or a father (most are sterile). Women tend to be more physically capable of extremely long endurance activities, but lack strength and musculature to excel at shorter physical endeavors. Hormones are different for different people. But beyond the biological - is there a definable difference?

For thousands of years, the answer was, "of course, you silly, weak, dainty, intellectually inferior little girl." Gender tended (and still does tend) to be defined by power dynamics (and women's more complicated hygiene needs, coupled with the sheer dirtiness of the majority of human history didn't help either). But from Katherine Switzer, to Marie Curie to Queen Elizabeth, a lot of those misogynistic judgments have come into question.

In the biblical account of creation, "Adam" refers to a generic human without designation for gender. It is a collective noun. It is only after the infamous fruit-eating incident, that the man takes the title "Adam" (or human) for himself and relegates the woman to a lesser status.

Even the word translated "helper" in Genesis 2 can be confused easily without context. The Hebrew word here is often used as an attribute of God. We often read the female as "helper" and think subordinate or assistant or apprentice. It means the opposite - an indispensable partner. In God's understanding of humanity, humanity itself doesn't exist without men and women in equal and equally supportive roles.*

This might, I suppose, still lend itself to specifically defined gender roles - a sort of cosmic "separate, but equal" policy. (We all know how well that worked out other times we've tried it). Instead, I've come to think of gender as much more about complimentariness. We supply what others lack.

I'll be honest, I come to this from a selfish point of view. I have few of the characteristics typical of men - and almost none of those associated with "real men." (I'd add Tim Allen's signature grunt here but, typically or atypically, I find it off-putting rather than endearing.) My wife and I went to one of those all-day marriage seminars early in our marriage. We spent the whole day scratching our heads about how little any of it made sense, until, right before we left, the presenters said, "Oh, and if you're one of those rare couples where the gender tendencies are reversed, you work differently and none of this stuff will apply to you."

Comment Card: Maybe you should lead with that next time!

I'm enough of a man to admit I'm the wife. Except I have enough of the typically male traits not to be the wife. I cook most of our meals, but I'm not particularly good at it. I don't clean well. I watch a lot of sports. No one who knows my wife would suggest she's somehow mannish. We're very different people and we defy the stereotypes pretty firmly. Yet we're exceptionally complementary.

The stereotypes are important because they represent completion. Passive-aggressive, hefty-dainty, emotional-rational. Those are necessary opposites; one without the other is dangerous. Our society is made to work together. We literally can't function without complementary relationships. If any human interaction lacks any of these important elements, things will go wrong. Just because there is a tendency for one gender to do some of these things better than others, doesn't mean its universal - nor is it determinative.

I talk about marriage because that's where this is most clearly identified - our most intimate relationships require this essential human complimentariness more closely than others - but it applies to any scenario where people partner together. Marriage isn't for everyone, but we all have to work together. We were created as relational, interdependent beings. This is basic, foundational stuff.

I want to state again, I'm not saying that gender is only a biological determinant. Our biology is inextricably intertwined with our personality. You can separate soul and body. Certainly our biology dictates tendencies between the genders. Men and women are not identical, but then again, neither are any two individual human beings. There is a real place for gender as a collective and representative designation in some areas, but we need to move beyond gender as a fixed, definitive label to explain individuals. Man or woman, we're better than that.

*You can read more of the biblical exegesis stuff here.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Ballad of George and Trayvon

I'm willing to buy completely that racism played no part in the tragedy of Trayvon Martin's death. Zimmerman was obsessed with policing his neighborhood and being the hero; he was bound to run into trouble at some point with someone he deemed to suspicious or someone who wasn't willing to humor his foibles.

Just because someone isn't thinking about race in a given situation, doesn't mean race isn't a factor. Racial stereotypes are a part of our culture, whether we like it or not. They shape the way we respond to each other - all of us. There may be fewer black people who agree with the stereotype of young black men as thugs, but those people are aware of and respond to the stereotype like everyone else. There may be fewer white people who believe southern whites are uneducated hicks, but that doesn't make the stereotype any less real.

I suspect more people are aware of such stereotypes and the influence of them on their own thoughts and actions than are willing to admit it. I spent quite a bit of time with black, urban youth - plenty to recognize the damage of such stereotypes. Still, I think differently when I see a group of black kids on the street than when I see white ones.

I hope being aware of the stereotype allows me to react purposefully and not reactionarily - avoiding bias in the way I treat people. I doubt I succeed all the time. Our minds are too hardwired for patterns to fully avoid it. We take experience, whether its ours or the experience we heard second hand through the media and we form generalizations. Kids these days are less likely to be victims of crime, but we're much more overprotective because a generalization of danger has built up.

Every sensationalized story in the media about a corrupt cop or violent terrorist pulls far above their actual weight in changing culture. Stereotypes affect the way people see those who look like them and those who don't. They permeate well beyond the capacity of even the most self-aware among us to decipher.

It's not just race, of course, gender, appearance, erudition, manner of dress, occupation, all of it affects our responses and actions based on generalizations that have little to do with reality. We are rational beings, but not entirely. We rely still a lot on instinct. In times of stress, even more so.

One of the most troubling images for me from this whole affair is this one:

I first saw it on a blog post from Bryan Todd, who talks about the flip side of the issue. My post deals with why things happen; his deals with why we're so outraged.

One of the most prominent arguments against the death penalty is the lack of ability our system has to dole it our fairly. I'm against the death penalty because I'm against killing, but most people are against it not because they disagree with it, but because there's overwhelming evidence we hand down a death sentence unfairly across racial and economic (and even intellectual) lines. It's a powerful practical argument, beyond any of the moral discussions involved.

Something similar can be said for these self-defense statutes, which came into play in Zimmerman's case. Beyond any moral argument (and for the record, I'm against killing in self defense, because I'm against killing), there is the overwhelming evidence that we give some people the benefit of the doubt because of their skin color.

Many out there say this is evidence of racism. I don't agree. I believe racism exists and plays a part in these numbers - I just think it's a negligible part. I think our stereotypes, those perceptions, generalizations we all create, have marred our society. I'm not sure anybody can be compared equivalently with those of a different skin color. We just don't see ourselves as equals - again, not that's we're consciously biased, but that our results betray the reality of the situation.

This is a systemic evil. I'm not one to go in for notions of demons and demonic activity in the world. I am, however, quite certain that some evils exist, which humans created through individual action, whose repercussions have grown beyond any human ability to stop. I have hope that, over time, in the same way individual actions can build systemic evil into something larger than our ability to control, that over time, our individual actions might just be able to do the opposite.

It takes looking at the big picture. We have to be able to say "race plays a factor" in things without necessarily subjecting individuals to charges of racism. Yes, we've all got racial bias that infects our lives, it's true. Some even have overt racist hatred and act upon it. I'm not denying racism. I'm saying we're never going to be able to address it without taking a broader view and trusting each other. Not trusting each other to be honest or fair or unbiased, but trusting each other to be flawed and biased and willing to overcome those flaws in exchange for grace.

No one is going to admit the bias they genuinely see in themselves, if they think they'll be vilified and raked over the coals. We're especially hesitant to talk to people about race who look different than us because those people have a genuine right to be offended by what we say. We're going to have to learn to let things go in liue of the greater good.

It takes looking at the big picture, but it also takes acting intentionally in small ways. I'm pretty convinced that Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman would both be alive and happier today if they'd regularly spent time at a neighborhood cookout. If they knew each other outside of suspicious confrontations on the street. I'm really convinced that those public epithets being hurled around would not be so sharp if we knew the people to whom we've aimed them.

My neighborhood is racially diverse. Yet it's pretty clear that people who don't look line one another don't talk. At least not often and not easily. It's just more difficult for us to make friends and have conversation when we're terrified of saying something wrong, of playing into a stereotype of not having the other person understand our perspective. It just is.

We live in a diverse world, but we're awfully segregated when it comes to our serious relationships. Diversity doesn't mean much if we're not incorporating it into our lives. We've got to make the difficult effort to cross those boundaries on our own streets, so we can better address them in the streets (and in courtrooms, too).

I'm willing to give George Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt that race wasn't a factor in his analysis of Trayvon Martin's suspiciousness. I think it's silly to say race wasn't a factor, just because he may not have overtly or consciously broached the idea.

This story, the ballad of George and Trayvon, is played out in schools, businesses, streets, homes, and neighborhoods all over the world everyday. This particular interaction gets more attention because of the tragic loss of life. Yet it's all of those other interactions (or lack thereof) that feed into and produce the kinds of things we saw in Florida.

We've got to do better - and, please, let me know when you're free for dinner; we need to spend more time together.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Vocation and Occupation

I've never thought of myself as a stay-at-home dad. During the school year, my wife goes off to work and I take care of our daughter until she gets home. I guess that makes me a stay-at-home dad. I've really never thought of myself that way.

Yes, there was some mental and relational adjustment moving from a job with an office and responsibilities every day to something more flexible. Of course, that transition happened at the same time we moved to another state, bought a house, and added a baby to the mix. Everything was changing so perhaps the adjustment was a bit easier.

There is a bit of social pushback to something like this. Despite the growth of stay-at-home dads, most people generally expect the father/husband to be the bread winner. Of course, I've never been well aligned with gender stereotypes in the first place and, even when I was working, haven't made more money than my wife since she was in college.

I'm not one to suffer others' opinions. I don't like disappointing people, but I have very little problem confounding them. I recognize this trait is somewhat rare; most of us want to fit in.

I talked to a friend in town who also spends most of his days taking care of his kids. You can see the tension as we broaches the subject of "what we do." You're just never sure how people will react - or whether you're going to have to defend yourself. In both our cases, we're capable of getting and keeping full-time employment should that be our choice. That often makes it more difficult for people. You choose to do this?

News flash: Men love spending time with their kids (most of them, anyway). I get a little frustrated from time to time when I run out of things to do (my daughter doesn't yet walk, so our activity options are sorely limited - this upcoming school year should be a lot more fun), but I love being able to spend time with her. She already has a special connection to my wife - they were, after all, once physically connected - and spending so much time with her gives me opportunity for an equally strong bond.*

After this experience, it's really difficult to see where the mindset comes from that, "if you stay at home with the kids, you're weak, less of a man." It comes most often from men and often directed at themselves.

I think it has something to do with how we define ourselves. I'd say our purpose in life is our vocation; it's what we believe we've been put on the planet to do. For some lucky souls, that vocation is something people will pay them enough money to do that they don't need to do anything else. Vocation and occupation are the same.

For the rest of us, we have an occupation. A job. Something that if sometimes rewarding, often not, but something that pays the bills and keeps us moving.

Too often, the distinction between occupation and vocation just aren't made. This happens more often with men. Women have a much easier time making "mother" their vocation, even if they have a great, fullfilling, busy occupation. That's just how things work. Again, they had a living thing growing inside them that didn't require strong doses of antibiotics. That changes things.

For men, we define ourselves by our work. At least that's our default position.

I've worked really hard over time to change my perception of this. For a few years, it was simply saying the words to myself "my occupation is not my vocation." Eventually, it started to sink in. Now, I think, it's pretty well grounded in my head.

I don't consider myself a stay-at-home dad, because while I am caring for my daughter, I'm also actively pursuing my vocation. I exist on this planet to live into the already and coming Kingdom of God - to love people and prove their inherent value through my words and actions. I don't need a paycheck to do that.

Specifically, I've been called and trained to pastor. Pastor has become an occupational term and it certainly is an occupation, but it's also much broader than that. It's a helping role. As a pastor, I get to walk alongside people who are struggling and struggle with them. I get to be a sounding board and a loving presence. I don't need a church or a paycheck to do that. I love being a pastor to my neighborhood.

Being a father is part of that vocation. There is this little person who needs all of my pastoral and vocational skills and probably a few more skills I don't have or I'm not very good at. When we have people who rely on us, taking care of them is part of our purpose on the planet.

My denomination held a General Assembly a few weeks back. It's a giant gathering of crazy Nazarenes from around the world who meet to overeat and argue about relative minutia - and then overeat again. We also, during that time, agree upon new leaders (our denomination is led by six ministers called General Superintendents). The voting is a long process - an election requires 2/3rds of the votes.

At one point, a young, impressively capable minister from Africa, Dr. Fili Chambo, was rising up the ballot. He looked to be a good candidate for election. He approached the microphone and asked that his name be removed from consideration. He felt his place was still in Africa and especially still helping to raise his young children in the faith (being a General Superintendent requires an ungodly amount of international travel).

Here is a minister, turning down the chance to hold the highest office possible. It was a moving, humbling, and happy experience to witness. It is a great reminder that even in Christian service, something that is most definitely a vocation, there is still an element of occupation that can creep in. Dr. Chambo reminded us all about the priority of vocation.

I speak about pastors because that is contextual for me. Others are in helping professions where vocation and occupation can be difficult to discern - doctors, teachers, farmers. Still others are in professions where occupation and vocation are intentionally united as part of a pressure-to-succeed atmosphere - bankers, lawyers, salespersons.

It doesn't really matter where your checks come from (and I do make some money through writing, preaching, and teaching - all things I love), but it's very easy to think it does matter. We've also gotten very good at justifying our occupation as vocation. I can preach and teach and write a lot, and about good, Godly things - but it may be detracting from my vocation.

You were put on this planet to do something - something even beyond our general purpose of loving God and loving others. Vocation is real and important. It might take a long time to unwind yourself from captivity to occupation, but it can make a world of difference.

*Or something approaching equally strong. When summer first started and all through the school year, my daughter would generally reach for me first when she needed something. Somewhere around the third week of June, that all changed. I'm definitely second fiddle. Mom still has something I will never be able to possess, but that's ok.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Heroes, Villains and Rolling Stone

It might be that I'm from nowhere. I'll give you that. But if I am from somewhere, that place is Boston. Still, I'll admit, I'm having a lot of trouble with the furor over the upcoming Rolling Stone cover with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover. I've read TIME Magazines and Newsweeks (RIP) with Osama Bin Laden featured prominently. Is the issue more because it's a flattering picture and not dirty, bearded Saddam Hussein?

I read the arguments about not validating horrible acts with fame, although they're silly. Famously bad people get famous; you refuse to reward them by making sure they deal with the consequences of their famously bad acts.

I suspect it has more to do with the notion that Rolling Stone will feature a story, not about a cold-blooded killer, but about a confused kid that in way over his head. We're outraged by the sympathy - as if sympathy itself is finite and any sympathy given to "the bad guy" is sympathy taken from his innocent victims. I haven't read the story; I've not even read an account of anyone who's read the story. It may very well make Tsarnaev a victim alongside those people he hurt. I'm not sure what's wrong with that.

Not every victim is innocent. Not every terrorist is evil.

To be sure, there are plenty of innocent victims here. People were killed, maimed, injured, traumatized by the senseless, stupid actions of two disillusioned brothers. That's not up for debate. No matter how righteous our perceived cause or how serious our perceived indignities (and our causes and indignities are always perceived), violence is never the right choice. It just isn't. Ever.

But I'm troubled that our society so quickly condemns anyone willing to explore the depths of a complicated situation. We like simplicity. We like it a lot. But then again, simplicity is not real life (the same can be said for Trayvon and George).

We want to categorize people good and bad, usually so we can distinguish "us" from "them." We like the fantasy that some human beings are downright evil. It keeps us from facing the reality that, as humans, we're all capable, under the right circumstances, of all the evil any of us are capable of.

None of us should be defined by our actions. We can certainly be described by our actions, but that's a far cry from defining us that way. I've known people who grew up with absentee fathers who've really struggled with this distinction. When you've got a Dad incapable of anything good, it's tough to realize that this dispicability isn't genetic. They have to differentiate between the actions of their father (which are bad) and the person of their father (who is dad). The same applies to all our heroes and villains.

The homeless man with the golden voice, who made headlines, reunited with his family, and went on all the feel-good morning talk shows - he relapsed shortly thereafter, then again a few months later. He's got a job and a home and a future, but he's not perfect. He's a man chock full of good and bad; neither define him. They describe him.

Don't get me wrong, description is still important. People who have done a lot of stealing are likely not the best to hire as house-sitters. We must all live with the consequences of our actions. Those are real. I hope the Rolling Stone piece doesn't gloss over the tragedy that brought Tsarnaev to our attention. It would be unconscionable.

But actually exploring the forces in a person's life that lead them to evil (or to good) is interesting and valuable and far too rare in our world today.

It's way better than just guessing, which is how it normally works. We judge people based on gut instinct and any variety of subjective criteria. Howard Dean gets excited during a campaign speech, yells crazily, like Slim Pickins riding the bomb, and his political career is over. Anthony Weiner texts a picture of his junk to a woman who's not his wife and he becomes the next mayor of New York. Capricious.

We want to hate Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He's done some bad stuff. The consequence of which is that his life ends at 19 years old, whether he's executed or not. Does that make him a tragic figure? I don't know, but I think it's fantastic that someone is trying to find out.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Good Samaritan Tale

A tale has been told of a young boy, we’ll call him Amir, playing with some sticks he’s fashioned into toys and eavesdropping on his father, entertaining guests in a small house in the mountains of Afghanistan. Suddenly, there’s a bright light, a loud noise and everything goes black. When Amir awakes, he finds his home in ruins and all his family dead. At seven, he is the lone survivor and he is on his own.

The neighbors tell him it was a drone attack, that foreign invaders bomb their country to make the people afraid and take their resources. Amir has made an enemy. His journey begins slowly, running errands and cooking food. Soon he becomes a look-out, and a very good one. His stealth earns him a promotion and he begins planting roadside bombs, then helping to build them, then deciding where they will be placed.

A decade later, he is a man, even though he’s been an adult far longer than children should have to be. He’s moving along a mountain road from one village to another when he comes upon the remains of a recent ambush. A foreign soldier lies on the side of the road ahead, he must have been thrown from his vehicle during the chaos.

Amir ducks behind some rubble as the soldier’s unit returns, running quickly. They glance at their fallen comrade and then back at their pursuers and hurry on. Later, an investigative team arrives, checking the road for clues and unexploded devices. They too ignore the soldier on the side of the road.

Finally, when the coast is clear, Amir ventures out. This is a profound moment for him. Despite all of his experience, he’s never met an invader up close. Surely the soldier is dead or the others would have helped him. Amir will take no chances. The images of his parents, his siblings, their bodies broken, their funerals dance in his head. He gripes the knife inside his cloak. He will make sure this soldier is dead.

As he approaches, the man moans and begins to roll over, clearly badly injured, but alive. They make eye contact. Amir gasps, drops his knife and staggers backwards. The image in his head has been transformed. As he stares at the soldier, he see’s something familiar. The blood, running down his face, sticking in his beard, the pain in his eyes. Quickly, those eyes become the eyes of Amir’s father, the blood, his blood, the pain, his pain. Amir’s heart melts.

Amir could do nothing as a young boy, but he could do something now, as a man. Quickly his mind begins to assess the damage. He looks around – there’s a village not far, with some friends. He could hide the soldier in a back room until his wounds heal enough. His reputation and authority should keep the soldier hidden well enough. There is money and medical supplies stashed away. They should do. If not he could find more. This man must not die.

As Amir regained his bearing and approached the soldier, he saw the pistol. The soldier had retrieved it, with great effort, and was pointing it in Amir’s direction. The soldier was in no position to fight and his wounds demanded hurry. So Amir kept coming. The shot rang out and echoed through the valley, then another. Neither had hit Amir, but the look in the soldier’s eye had changed from pain to fear.

Amir did all he could to assuage that notion. But he spoke only his native tongue and there was really not much time. With his injuries, the soldier’s aim was terrible, but at close range it would be good enough. In the end, his bullets held out longer than his heart and by the time Amir was able to reach him, he was gone.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Pride and Inheritance: Further Reflections on Fatherhood

We're all special, right? We're all unique individuals with something to offer the world that no one else can offer. At least, that's what everyone in my generation and those following have been told by everyone for their entire lives.

Obviously, most of us realize at some point that we're not that special. Yes, we're unique in that no one is exactly like us, which is great and good and important; but we figure out at some point that we're not special the way we were told we were special.

I think that point is when adulthood begins.

Those nine-year-olds who carry a briefcase and stay at the dinner table talking to the adults when the rest of the kids are off playing - they're not strange, they just figured out reality a bit sooner than their peers. I have a lot of respect for those kids.

Of course there is another side to the equation. Those nine-year-olds who stay at the table talking with the adults because they think what makes them special is how much smarter and more mature they are than other kids.

This kid was me.

I wasn't like a super genius. I didn't learn to read before any of the other kids in school. I can't do complex math in my head and I don't have a photographic memory. I was, however, pretty good at a lot of things. Looking back now, I realize this was mostly because I don't forget much. Like I said, I don't have a photographic memory with perfect, instant recall, but, for the most part, the facts that do wedge themselves into my brain stay there for a long time - and I'm pretty good at recalling them quickly when need be.

This skill helped me do well in things, but it wasn't anything special. I'm an above-average intellect with a talent for remembering random facts (but no talent for remembering when to take out the trash or what to get at the grocery store).

For the longest time, I clung to the notion that there was something about me truly special. I had something so unique that I would one-day find that one thing in life I was better at than anyone else. I didn't and still don't have great self-esteem, but so long as I could prove myself in trivial pursuit or finishing the math test first, it helped to feed the delusion.

I spent a lot of my life calculating. Calculating what would be a reasonable challenge and what would be a miserable failure. I was very competitive (for those of you who only know me as an adult, this is nothing). I took pride in being the best at those few things in which I was the best and I avoided doing anything else at all. I still have a hard time doing something just because it's fun.

However, I've discovered something since having a child. I'm really, definitely way too excited about seeing what she can do. After all this time attempting to negate the notion that anyone else could be as smart or as talented as me, I'm really, really hopeful that my daughter can do the same things - or maybe more and better.

She's got one of those shape toys, where you fit the plastic shapes into corresponding holes. It teaches problem solving and manual dexterity, matching, etc. Eva is 14 months old. She can, like 70% of the time, identify a circle, square or triangle - and also identify the corresponding hole in the toy. She even manages, maybe 30% of the time, to actually get them in. She's probably doing pretty well for her age.

I can't tell you how much I want her to be better at it. I know there are some parental-pressure issues that can easily arise here, and I know I'll likely struggle with them as any parent does. More than that, I'm just hoping beyond hope to have a kid I can relate to. I'm not sure I'd wish my faults and foibles on another human being, but at the same time, I can't imagine how great it would be to live in the same house with someone who understands me.

I have developed some good friends over the years, friends who get who I am and value me in all my unsualness. Most of them don't understand me. My wife sure doesn't. I can think of maybe two or three people in my entire life I felt I could really relate to completely. I'm used to being an odd duck.

I don't really want an odd-duck for a daughter. Of course, I am going to get one. Whether she's odd like me or odd in some other way, she's going to be different. One of the biggest traumas we inflict on each other is our continued presumption that there is such a thing as "normal." I knew early on that whatever normal was, I was never going to be it, which brings with it it's own set of challenges. However, I've spent my whole life watching people who had a fighter's chance of being normal try to do just that. It seems painful.

It would be selfish to wish my daughter were just like me. It would be equally selfish to wish she were normal, whatever that is. It would be borderline abusive to push her in either direction.

At the same time, I fight the drive within me to find my one world-beating talent. Even though I recognize that the quest is futile, it's still there within me. Having a child brings hope that maybe, even if I can't figure it out, the next generation can continue the quest.

It's about pride. I struggle to find things in myself about which I can be proud. I have a hard time seeing and defining myself as important apart from the things I can do. Maybe my desire for another someone like me is an attempt to reassure myself that who I am is acceptable? I really mourn the difficulty I have in doing something that makes me look foolish (even if it's only foolish in my own eyes). I certainly don't want to pass that on to my daughter.

It's also a vicious cycle. If you're not proud, you seek out those things you can be proud of. When/if you find them, you have reason to be proud. Pride doesn't help us. Those times I've really felt accomplished haven't been because I did something great, but because I did something that felt true to myself.

I don't know how to pass on the good and hold back the bad. I'm not even sure I know enough to say all of what's good or bad to pass on. I do know that having a daughter has changed me. I spend much more time thinking outside of myself than I ever have before. I know, deep down, that's a good thing.

I'm going to love her and tell her she's special - not because of what she knows or does or says - just because she is.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Human Longing for Purpose

TIME Magazine had a feature story a few weeks back entitled "Can Service Save Us?" I was immediately intrigued, as you may know, I'm a big proponent of serving others. I believe it's the key to life. That, ironically, the only way we can appease that insatiable drive to please ourselves is by forsaking our own needs and serving others. I figured the article would be about national service and the drive of a younger generation to be more intimately involved in tangible change.

I was blown away to see that the article was about all that, but even more, it was set in the context of combat veterans. While the article focused on some specifics of various groups, their history and future, I was blown away by the clear an concise message.

Combat veterans need some place to relax with people who don't treat them like heroes or villains and they need some continued connection to mission.

I posted a long way back about my conflicted feelings towards military service. This article, perhaps only by implication, helped parse those feelings a bit. There is a dichotomy between the ugliness of war and the valiance of those willing to wage it. Often, those element of the job are conflated. It seemed like this article took pains to keep them separate.

I think it's begun to hit on the core of our human longing for purpose. We search for it in any number of different ways, some healthy, others not so much. In the end, we want to be connected to others in ways that make us feel alive.

Many young people join the military because they don't have a sense of purpose or even much self-awareness. Often they find these things, but they're too closely connected to their job. When Soldiers leave the military, they have a lot of skills and abilities, but they often encounter the same personal issues they had going in. I love the idea of connecting people to a mission, not only one bigger than themselves, but bigger than their past and their position.

I do believe service will save us. I think it's a key component to salvation of every kind. I am ecstatic to see the quality skills and abilities earned in the military put to use for some purpose other than fighting.

The military does one thing the Church has lost - connecting people to mission. Perhaps the military falls short in too closely connecting that mission to military and diplomatic aims, but the Church often limits mission to preconceived religious boxes itself.

What we need is a broader, more open understanding of mission - something outside our job description or our religious preference our own personal identity - something that unites us in our common humanity and perhaps, in the doing, somehow makes us more human.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Pop Music and Christian Commitment

So, most mornings my daughter and I listen to the local Top40 station during breakfast. We do this partly because she loves music and this is the only station we can get in our kitchen. We also do it because they have a pop-culture trivia contest every day at about 8:15 and I loves me some pop culture.

One morning last week, I happen to catch a lyric that intrigued me. The new single from Mumford rip-off and American Idol winner, Phillip Phillips (amazing any creativity at all runs in that family), is basically a straightforward love song about undying devotion and co-dependency that makes young girls swoon and fills out a catchy tune. However, one line, likely accidental, says "When your hope is dangling by a string/I'll share your suffering/To make you well, to make you well."

Sharing suffering is certainly a gospel buzzword for me. Our modern culture isn't usually a big proponent of things that make us sad, especially unnecessarily. With all this talk about marriage these days (most of it without actually addressing marriage at all), the line sparked something in me.

I looked up the lyrics, and yes, by the end, they do devolve into "I can't live without you" co-dependency, that sort of takes the poignancy of commitment out of the beginning. Regardless, it's a good example.

Rarely do we approach anyone with the notion of suffering with. Perhaps if we're getting something out of the arrangement (alleviation of guilt, feelings of superiority, a warm fuzzy charity high, or perhaps steamy sex) then it makes sense to up the level of commitment.

I'll say again, so you know I'm aware, these lyrics are probably just filler that fit the rhyme scheme and meter necessary for the catchy tune. At the same time, millions of people are hearing them and processing them, even if it's subconscious.

Sharing in suffering is not just for romantic commitments, it is a staple of Christian life and purpose. Obviously marriage becomes the pinnacle of this, because married people commit to each other for life. There is some semblance of that all-in commitment in the song as well.

The final intriguing piece, though, as it relates to marriage is the throwaway tag - "Give me reason to believe/That you would do the same for me."

That's Christian marriage in its simplest form, isn't it? Making a lifelong commitment, of mutual suffering if necessary. It doesn't sound that glamorous. Of course marriage really isn't that glamorous - maybe that's why people spend so much on their weddings, to keep the allure of glamour as long as possible?

When I give advice about marriage, I give the long spiel about Christian commitment - that our marriages are modeled on the relationship of God to God's people and that we must be willing to give up everything, even our own happiness, for the sake of the other. But I also tell people, if you're going to get married, look for two things:

1. Someone who is worth that kind of sacrifice.

2. Someone you're reasonably sure is capable of making the same commitment to you.

God plays a part in marriage, a big part, but hopefully before two Christians get this far, they've already well incorporated a relationship of total dependence on God into their lives.

We've exhausted even the last remnants of gravity in the song now, but I think there's still one more thing to be said. Phillip Phillips' lyrics devolve into co-dependency, like most love songs, and frankly, it's a pretty easy place to go in real life. I'll admit, more than anything, what I value from my marriage is its ability to support me and keep me sane. I rely on this element perhaps too much at times.

In the end, in real life, I think what keeps any marriage from devolving in the same way is a third principle - not one you look for in the other, but one you seek out together.

3. Before you commit to each other, be absolutely sure that the Kingdom of God, the gospel, God's redemptive purposes in the world, will be better off with you together than it would with you apart.

This idea had never crossed my mind before I got married. I think I had #1 and #2 down pretty well. I'd never, though, thought about marriage as something that was "for" anyone else. It is, though. At the core, marriage has a purpose beyond bearing children and providing security. It must, at least for those committed to Christ, further the mission of God in the world.

I think we lucked into that one. My wife and I are so vastly different that we force each other, painfully most of the time, to adapt and be different - to be more well rounded people, especially in areas we'd otherwise neglect. I can see, in her and in myself, many ways God has worked for good in the world through us that would never have been possible without our marriage.

So, that song (Gone, Gone, Gone) might be musically derivative and lyrically predictable - but I sure appreciate it as a reminder to be conscious of the ways we serve others and the value of relationship in the world.