Reflections

(This is the 5th of seventeen remaining posts in my 200 for 200 goal. If you like what I do on this blog, please tell your friends and invite them to “follow.” Your interest helps me to keep writing!)

It’s the last day of 2018. I’ve spent much of December lying low, or nose-to-the-grindstone with work, and the Christmas season flew by. This despite my saying that I would intentionally slow down and make time to really get into the mood and the idea of the season–something at which I failed dismally. I have, however, managed to take some downtime between Christmas and the New Year without work, enjoying time with friends and my wife, writing and pursuing other hobbies, and doing some reflecting on the past year and Christmas itself. I’ve read a number of excellent blog posts about Christmastime and thought, “as an aspiring theologian, I really ought to post something, too.”

But, in this strange season (for me, at least) of trying to relax and simultaneously being angsty that I’m “not being productive enough,” I just don’t have a deep intellectual theological point to make on the subject (though what I hope to be deep theological and intellectual points on some other important issues will soon be forthcoming). If there’s anything I’ve learned from trying to be “a writer” (if I’ve truly learnt anything at all), it’s that you can’t force a subject and achieve something you’re truly proud of as a result.

So, instead, I’m going to merely share some of the things that have been roaming through my head in the past few weeks in the hope that somebody somewhere finds some meaning in some part of it. Here we go:

Christmas

Christmas is a hectic time for me and K. As a worker in church ministry, this is K’s
“busy season” (to borrow an accountant’s term); she affectionately calls Christmas Eve a “non-stop Jesus party”–I believe our church held four different services this year.

On top of that, we are blessed that all of our parents live within close proximity. Of course, that also means that we have three Christmasses to make between Christmas Eve and Christmas day, which typically means less-time-than-desired spent with each family member, more road-time than we’d prefer, and a level of exhaustion at the end of things that makes it more difficult to enjoy what a blessing it is to be able to spend time with family in this part of the year.

As is appropriate, I suppose, this has me thinking about the Incarnation. The meaning of Christmas, to me, is relatively simple but profound. God loves us so much that God personally came to Earth to be with us, accepting suffering alongside us (and for us) just to be present with us. It’s one thing to write that, but let it really sink in. Think about what God volunteered to do when no force or power can make God do anything God doesn’t will to do. Think about the eternal profundity of that choice. I’m not often one to let my emotions get the best of me, but this single thought strikes me to the core every time I contemplate it.

This basic truth about God’s will, choices and desire for us is the source of all hope we have, the foundation of that peace which cannot be marred by temporal events, the all-encompassing love that inspires love in all touched by it. Jesus Christ’s birth into the world is the very core element of Christianity (as is fitting).

Yes, Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross for us is also foundational, as is the Resurrection. But, at the end of the day, these are true mysteries of the faith that we will never fully understand. Whether you ascribe to Christus Victor theory, Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory, or one of the various other proffered explanations for the mechanism of our salvation, it’s a topic that will always elude our complete grasp. But the meaning of Christmas needs no great intellect for one to understand how it changes everything. The meaning of Christmas is existential, and therefore intuitive.

We may cloud that realization with commercialization, with stress about pleasing others and properly performing traditions, or angst about failing to adequately take time to “get into the Christmas Spirit,” but it is always there for us, waiting to be discovered anew.

New Year’s Resolutions

I haven’t made New Year’s Resolutions for several years. It strikes me as a silly thing, really. Why should an arbitrary marker of time provide some special impetus for us achieving the things we want to all year round (but fail to summon the discipline or will to truly work toward)? I want to be in better shape all the time, but there’s no reason to think that I will have some additional amount of drive to follow through on the desire tomorrow than I do today.

Instead, I’ve simply made goals for myself for each season of my life, reflecting on and thinking about those things that I want to prioritize for myself in the choices that I make moving forward.

But this year, I’ve decided to make a resolution anyway. It is, in many ways, a sub-goal for my life season goals. At present, the life goal on which I am most focused is to become a professional writer, to be published. That doesn’t mean that I expect to be able to be a full-time writer, I understand how rare a thing that that actually is, and there’s a part of me that would very much like to keep money out of my writing as much as possible (though I understand what the Apothecary means when he says, “My poverty but not my will consents.”).

That resolution is to write for at least one hour every day. It’s not necessarily about content generation (as I said above, such things cannot be forced). Instead, it’s about building stronger writing habits. I may write on the novel I’m working on, or the half-finished theology book manuscript currently gathering dust, or a short-story, or something gaming-related, or this blog, or what ultimately amounts to unusable nonsense. The point is to erode those barriers that all-too-commonly lead me to say, “I feel like I should be writing right now, but…” To write for the sake of writing, because I acknowledge that as a core personal need I have–writing, regardless of result or achievement, is part of who I am.

Maybe while I’m at it, I’ll get myself to the gym more often. But I’m not holding my breath.

200 for 200

WordPress tells me that, in the roughly two-and-a-half years since I started this blog, I’ve posted 182 posts (this will be 183). Considering my goal has been a minimum of one post a week (even though sometimes posts come in bursts following periods of silence rather than on a regular schedule), I’m pretty proud of that.

But I aspire to more, so I’m setting a goal for myself, one with which I very much need your help! Here it is: I want to have 200 followers through WordPress by the time I hit 200 posts. I currently have 137 WordPress followers, so that’s 63 new followers in the next 17 posts.

If you like what I do here and want to help me reach a wider audience (and perhaps be motivated to do even more), here’s what you can do: (1) invite your friends and followers to come take a look at the blog and follow if they like what they see; (2) repost your favorite posts from this blog on your blog; (3) “like” articles and posts that you, well, like; (4) comment on posts; (5) send me a message about what you like (or don’t) and what you’d like to see more of; (6) generally tell your friends.

Here’s what you can expect to see in some of those next 17 posts: at least two new theology posts I’m working on, one of which is called “Is God’s Will General or Specific?” and the other of which is titled “Jesus’ Anti-Apocalyptic Message;” a review of Wrath & Glory RPG; some preliminary notes on the Dark Inheritence 40K Campaign I’m currently writing; some more notes on the development of Avar Narn RPG; at least one Avar Narn short story.

That certainly doesn’t cover 17 posts, so I’m free to take some suggestions or requests.

All it takes is clicking a few buttons to help me reach more people; please take a little time to spread the word!

Blog Update

I completely missed posting last week and haven’t posted anything this week. This post is not going to be as substantive as usual, unfortunately (I’ll try to get a substantive post up over the weekend!), but I wanted to let my readers know what’s going on and what to expect in the near future.

NaNoWriMo is not a go.
Last November, I made very good progress on the first draft of my first novel set in Avar Narn by participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I had hoped to participate again this year to get the first draft finished. Unfortunately–at this point–I’ve made the decision not to participate this year.

K and I are still waiting on a placement of kiddos, which could happen at any moment now but (obviously) hasn’t happened yet. I’m concerned that, as November nears, I’ll need to be focusing more of my time on the kids when they arrive. As much as I’m yearning to get the first draft (and then revisions) done on this novel, it simply must take a back seat to the children and their needs.

Additionally, K and I are purchasing a house and will be closing and moving around November. K’s got a lot going on with her worklife right now and into the near future, so I intend to take on the better part of the moving efforts.

That doesn’t leave much room in my schedule to try to fit in 1667 words a day in November, so I’ve decided to give myself a little break on that front.

This does not mean I won’t be writing–just probably not as intensely as I would be if participating in NaNoWriMo. I’ve been spending time working on (and reworking) some of the setting information for Avar Narn (mythology, legends and history, religion, geography, etc.) that will be the basis for (hopefully) many short stories and novels in the future. Expect some posts related to this “background” information.

I’ve got one Avarian short story currently underway (though I’m not sure I’ll end up happy enough with it that it will get posted) and plotting in the works for at least half-a-dozen more. I have more plotting to do for the rest of the novel (and some changes in the part that’s already written, which I’ve been slowly working through) and I hope to get some writing done towards the novel in the near future.

I had said not long ago that I’d be working on some sci-fi short stories (and a few are in their infancy), but Avar Narn is my truest passion and that’s where I’ve decided to really focus.

On Publishing
I’ve been thinking a good bit about how to approach publishing some of my work. That’s a daunting set of decisions, and I’m not fully decided, but I am currently leaning toward some form of self-publishing. While I’d love to have a large readership, I’d rather follow some advice from Joss Whedon. On talking about making TV shows, he reportedly said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I’d rather make something that a few people have to watch than something that a lot of people want to watch.”

For me, the major issue (other than perseverance through mountains of rejection letters, which I could live with) is control over my projects, staying true to the story for its sake rather than caving to market demands, and taking things in the direction I want them to go. This likely means a smaller audience and less money (to the extent that there will ever be any money in my writing, which is not a guarantee) but more personal freedom. It is a quirk of my personality to prioritize my independence and doing things my way over most other advantages–for better or for worse.

This may merit a full post, and I’d love to hear the thoughts of any readers who are themselves published (I know there are a few of you out there!).

On Theology
One of the reasons I failed to get a post out last week is that I’ve recently been teaching for a Sunday school class at the church. I love to teach and its an honor to have been asked to teach by people I so deeply respect and admire. We did two weekends on the history and polity issues confronting the United Methodist Church relating to our position on homosexuality (and the LGBTQI community in general) and are now doing two weekends on the Trinity.

There are certainly some posts in the works based on this research and some other reading/studying I’ve done recently. I’ll of course have a post on the Trinity in the near future (and why it’s such an amazing aspect of orthodox Christiany faith), but I’ve also got some ideas kicking around about theories of salvation, about William of Ockham and his theology, about (modern) Gnosticism and more.

On Reviews
I’ve finished a few Great Courses on medieval history recently and I’m currently in the midst of one on Imperial China (which, as K will attest, has really gotten me geeking out a fair deal, though perhaps no more than usual). I may do some reviews on these sometime soon.

I’m also working through a few theology books which I may have some comments on.

There are a number of video games either recently out or that will be out in the next few months that I’d, one, like to play, and, two, like to share some thoughts about. The Pathfinder: Kingmaker isometric game just released; it both takes me to an RPG setting and ruleset that’s always interested me (though that I’ve found far too complex and, ultimately, flawed to play on the tabletop) and to the isometric RPGs of the 90’s that were the mother’s milk of my early (digital) gaming life. The last installment of the recent Tomb Raider trilogy is also out and I’m definitely interested in following up on the first two very-well-done games of that series.

Of course, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Call of Cthulhu will be out soon, both of which I’m excited about. I was in law school about the time the first Red Dead Redemption came out, and I distinctly remember sitting with a judge in his late-sixties or early-seventies at lunch during a summer internship as he ranted about how great the game was. He wasn’t wrong.

On Roleplaying Games
As those of you who are interested in such things may have noticed, most of my recent posts on the truest-and-highest art of gaming–the tabletop RPG–have been about the Cortex Plus/Prime system. I’ll be continuing to post about my Shadowrun conversion for those rules.

I have always dreamed of an RPG to go along with Avar Narn. I’ve run several games set in the world over the years (using rulesets as diverse as The Riddle of Steel, Cortex, Fate, and D&D), but my ultimate desire is to build a roleplaying game specifically designed for the unique nature of the world (said every RPG designer with a pet setting ever, I know). While I love “generic” roleplaying games like Fate and Cortex for a wide variety of play, I am also a believer that systems specifically designed for particular settings are usually better, because the mechanics can reinforce the setting and vice-versa.

One of the most annoying things I see in D&D is the assumption by some players that the rules of D&D are the immutable physics of any setting using that ruleset rather than the rules serving the setting (and being subordinate to both normal and narrative logic).

Both Fate and Cortex intend to be rulesets that bridge the gap between the completely generic ruleset and the one-setting ruleset by using modularity and a toolbox approach that encourages customization. But even this, I think, will not be sufficient for my purposes.

I see games like The One Ring with mechanics that really bring forward the themes and motif of the game as a whole–not to mention indy games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Houses of the Blooded and Torchbearer that really push the envelope of rules for narrative games or RPGs (however you parse those two out)–and I am inspired. We’ll see what comes of it, so expect posts as I struggle through issues of design and ask for feedback (and, hopefully, some eventual assistance with playtesting).

I had mentioned a ways back that I was working on a massive campaign set in the Warhammer 40k universe. That is on a backburner, to be sure, but still in the pipeline.

I’d like to do some review of the newer Warhammer Fantasy and 40K rulesets in the future as well.

Reader Involvement
In case it isn’t apparent, thinking critically and imaginatively and then writing about those thoughts. Maybe it’s a disease–I’m just not happy if I’m not doing it, and I find a lot of fulfilment just from writing and from posting here.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know that people find some usefulness in what I write! I’d love to have more comments, requests for topics, questions to follow up on from posts and more reader involvement in general! Drop me a line, even if it’s just to tell me what you think of the blog in general–or if you think there’s something I could improve on. And invite your friends!

Conclusion
Well, that’s a long list of things I’d like to do, perhaps more than can reasonably be accomplished. But it seems worth trying to do anyway, so we’ll see what comes of it.

Going a Little Crazy

As of today, K and I have been on the active list for our second foster placement for two weeks. The suspense is killing us.

The first time we became an active foster family, we had a placement within three days of going active. That being our only experience of the process, we’re chomping at the bit for something to happen.

We could get the call at any time, so all of our plans must currently be held in “tentative” status and every decision has a “what will we do if we get a placement call” component to it.

But we’ve only had one call for a potential placement, and that was the very day we became active again. It was a potential placement that just wasn’t a good fit for us, so we did the hard thing all of our clinicians, foster trainers and the rest of our support group has recommended to us–we passed and waited for something that will be a good fit for us. I can see how that becomes more and more difficult as time goes on and the desire to have kids in the home now continues to crescendo.

It’s a feeling of constantly being on edge–a strange combination of the night before Christmas and the night before that test you really should have studied for–but didn’t. It’s not that I don’t feel well-prepared, though, it’s quite the opposite. The source of tension is that the kids I imagine being in my home soon, falling in love with, are an amorphous blur in my imagination. We have, at present, no way of knowing what the specific challenges will be, what little miracles will greet us each day, what sorts of things will start me pulling out my hair. As is most often the case, it’s the not knowing that’s tough.

All of that is to say two things, I suppose: (1) as I hinted at back in July, there’s soon to be much more to say on this part of the blog, and (2) if I’ve been less active, or more distracted lately, at least now you have some explanation if nothing else.

On the other hand, maybe I should be trying to write more to stay sane–that usually helps. If only I could get my thoughts to stand still!

Call for Topics

I’ve got plenty of topics on my list of posts to write, and a number of things simmering on the back of my mind to become something of substance at some unspecified and future time.

But that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t stand to have more. And I love a good challenge.

So in an effort to both be responsive to my readership and to stretch my mind into some topics I might not readily choose for myself, I am putting out this call for topics that any of you would like me to write about. If something I’ve written previously has raised a question for you, you’re wondering about what I might have to say about some topic that hasn’t ever been addressed on this site, or you just want to see what I’ll do with a particular idea or issue, let me know what it is!

Feel free to add a comment to this post or to shoot me an email via the Contact page. If you email, let me know if you want me to name you as the originator of the topic or if you want to remain anonymous.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Book Review: Unafraid

In this post, I’m reviewing the book, Unafraid. No, not the Adam Hamilton one that came out a few months back, a 2017 book fully titled: Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith by Benjamin L. Corey and Patrick Lawlor.

There’s something I really like about a book on theology (especially one oriented to the general public) when the best summary of the book is a verse of scripture. Here, it’s:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:16b-18.

This book is both an argument and a journey. It is an argument about how fear has distorted Christianity’s message from one of love and hope to one concerned with the avoidance of Hell, preparation for impending apocalypse and a focus on getting people to say “magic words” about their belief in Christ rather than calling people to actually follow Him. It is a journey about the personal crisis of faith that led Ben Corey away from fear-based, conservative evangelical Christianity and toward progressive love-based Christianity.

The quote from scripture above demonstrates the overarching point of both argument and journey: the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s fear. And, as Yoda tells us, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Corey’s preaching to the choir here, so I almost put down the book when I felt I’d gotten the gist. I’ve written on this blog fairly extensively about ideas that I believed are shared with Corey: about the blessing that fear-based coercive evangelism can’t produce followers of Jesus (not directly, at least); about the backwardness of the religious right’s obsession with protecting their right to discriminate based on religion; even about the danger of prepper apocalyptic theology (albeit in a review of a video game).

Nevertheless, I’m glad I stuck the book out. Not only was it a pleasant read, but I did learn a bit of history I didn’t know and the book gave me much to think about or revisit.

On the history side, Corey traces the modern, conservative strain of American evangelical Christianity and its basis in fear to John Nelson Darby, a lawyer and lay theologian (yes, the similarity here is not lost on me) in the early 19th Century. For Corey (and I think he’s likely right), Darby almost singlehandedly transformed evangelical Christianity from a positive force truly seeking to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth (by campaigning against slavery, for worker’s rights, and other social-justice issues) to a relatively oppressive set of ideas that taught that the world was getting increasingly worse and more sinful, not better, and that hope for salvation from the damnation surely due to the world (particularly through not-very-scriptural ideas like the Rapture) could only be found through (fear-based) belief in Christ and a turning away and condemnation of the rest of the world. This apocalyptic mindset led to the idea that only “saving souls” by getting them to confess belief in Jesus mattered–there’s no need to seek justice, be a good steward to the environment, or otherwise try to make the world a better place when God’s just going to destroy it all anyway.

Though we must of course allow for variation in the beliefs of evangelical Christians as in any group of Christians, and it is not for me to say what people in that category truly have in their hearts and minds about what they believe about God, Corey’s description does tend to hit the nail on the head when I think of most of the the most-vocal evangelical Christian leaders in our day and age.

At the same time, Corey warns us about the categorization of Christianities. For Corey, when we take our identities from being “conservative” or “progressive” Christians (or even as Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, etc.), we create bastions of definition and meaning which we must then police and defend–leading to persecution of those who are not like-minded, especially when they try to claim membership in the same category as us. While categories may provide useful shorthand for understanding some of the core theology a person might have, Corey argues that it should not be used for more than that and that we need to keep our minds and hearts open to diversity of belief and the actual realities of individuals rather than using them to work out our own ideological and theological issues. He’s absolutely right about the danger here, and I myself feel a constant struggle (and failure, to be honest) not to fall into this trap.

Of course, Corey does argue for a progressive theology as a more genuine expression of love-based Christianity than conservative evangelism. As one part of the fallout from the crisis of faith that led Corey to progressive Christianity (from his conservative evangelical upbringing), Corey was fired from his position as pastor at a large church for, as he puts it, “hating guns and loving gays.”

Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was the cathartic camaraderie I felt in reading it. My path to progressive Christianity was nowhere near so dramatic as Corey’s, particularly because I walked it much younger in life than he did. But the reminder that I’m not alone in having been raised on conservative Christianity (despite being raised in the Methodist church, I was raised in Houston, one of the most conservative conferences of the UMC in America. Further, those who often taught my Sunday school classes were not deeply theologically trained.

Overall, I remember being taught a version of Christianity that didn’t tolerate well the asking of questions and gave me an overall view of Christianity that nearly led me to leaving the Church permanently. It was only later, as I began to read and study on my own, that I understood that there were other interpretations of Christianity and, to my surprise, that much of Methodist doctrine matched closely with the conclusions I’d come to on my own. Now, even in the Methodist church I’m clearly on the liberal side of things–and proud of that, if I do say so myself.

Nevertheless, it was nice to hear someone else’s journey, to know that there are others with whom I have much in common (though I knew this already).

I think that Corey’s journey, and the arguments he makes along the way, are well worth the read.

The Word of God for the People of God, Part II

For the previous post in this series, click here.

The Constitution of the United States of America is often referred to as a “living document.” We use this term because, by some miracle of foresight, careful drafting or the simple adaptability of the generic, the Constitution remains responsive to changing societal conditions. The same document has governed this nation from a time of agrarian society where industrial power was provided by the sweat of draft animals to the digital age.

When Supreme Court justices interpret the Constitution, they often speak in terms of “discovering” new doctrines of law rather than creating or adopting them (the doing of which might be a violation of the Constitution). While we’ve amended the document on many occasions, the principles of the core of the Constitution remain the foundation of American government and jurisprudence. It seems that the Constitutional well never runs dry when faced with new and difficult questions—questions that would never have been considered by the nation’s founders.

If the Constitution is a living document, the Bible is even more so. Given its length and breadth, there’s a lot of material to draw from, but even the same passage read repeatedly on different occasions will reveal different things to the same reader. This layering of meaning in the text of the Bible is one of its most defining features, I think.

Partially, this is a matter of the rich metaphors used by the Biblical authors and by the style of the writing itself. However, I believe that the multiplicity of meanings in and the always-something-new attribute of the Bible runs deeper than the skill of its writers—this is where I would say that the Bible is God-breathed, that it has a mystical way to speak to us afresh and to address our own situation no matter what that situation may be.

The Bible is more alive than the Constitution. The Constitution is alive because we return to its principles as we expand the law to deal with new social, legal and technological issues. In that sense, the Constitution is also dead—without the necromantic power of the person reading and interpreting the document, it is simply words on a page. Interpretation is uncertain, perhaps dangerous even, and best combined with a healthy bit of skepticism and careful evaluation.

The Bible, though, is alive in a different way. The true power of the Bible is that, in reading it, studying it, and living with it, one might have an encounter with the Living God, a personal encounter that transcends words on a page in meaning and power to change a person and a life. That was my experience.

For all of my intellectual theologizing, I did not understand Christianity (to the extent that I do at all) until I personally encountered Christ while reading the Bible—and that occurred only a few years ago. For all my talk of mysticism, that was only one of a very small handful of experiences in which I can say I had a direct encounter with the divine in my life. And yet, it changed me in ways that can never be undone, and neither would I want them to be.

Without the intervention of the divine upon the reader, the Bible does not possess the full power that it might. It would be a collection of wisdom, of valuable words, of a truth not fully containable within words, but it would be dead. The Bible is alive because our God is alive.

As Barth might put it, the Word of God (Christ) often comes to us through the medium of the word of God (the Bible), but the two are not the same and do not always coincide. Priority must be given to the Christ.

That is a difficult thing. How do we discern what an encounter with the divine really means? How do we interpret the messages we believe we’ve received from God, particularly when God has such a mastery of the subtle? We can argue fairly about the meaning of a passage of scripture; it becomes much harder to argue with someone about the Truth with which they feel they’ve been convicted.

If that feels dangerous, it’s because it is. For a historical example of the worst potential from those who claim to hear the voice of God but who act in ways clearly against God’s desires, go listen to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Series called “Prophets of Doom.” (While you’re there, stay a while with Mr. Carlin; his podcasts are terrific).

On the other hand, much has been done with the Bible itself that is counter to God’s desires, without a need for God’s involvement at all. See Gary Oldman’s character, Carnegie, in The Book of Eli for a (fictional) example of that.

While we must deal with the problem of interpretation of the divine message, that problem exists whether received in text or direct experience of the divine. The existence of such problems really does not change the way we prioritize the person of Jesus Christ and the scriptures.

As I’ve argued in other posts, the human mind is limited in its ability to understand the divine. Nevertheless, Christianity is a religion (despite its many fractious denominations) deeply focused on orthodoxy, that is, proper belief. But perhaps we ought to focus more (as Christianity also attempts to do) on the substance of the relationship with the divine, which is transformational even without being understood.

To that end, perhaps we ought to talk about the Bible as a kind of entheogen.

Letting Go

So, obviously, with a two-year-old in the house, either the movie or the soundtrack of Frozen is playing almost non-stop in the house. Hence the title of this post. That said, it’s still apropos.

It is axiomatic that one cannot control all aspects of one’s life and that learning to act in the areas where one can and learning to roll with the things outside of one’s control is an important life skill for maturity and personal happiness. I know this. But it’s easy to forget and, for some reason, human nature being what it is, my instinct is to try and exert as much control over life as possible in an effort to reduce the stress I feel from a lack of control. This is counterproductive.

The latest of the microcosmic reminders of this life lesson have been with potty training Bess. We’ve been working on this at a casual pace for nearly two months. I still fall into the trap of believing that a two-year-old can be reasoned with; such an illusion sets my frustration level soaring when I explain processes and procedures (and the reasons why) to Bess, hear her say “okay,” and then see her do exactly the opposite not thirty seconds later.

Meanwhile, K reminds me that we can’t be too insistent on success with this process because it’s really about Bess becoming relaxed and content with the whole thing, so stressing her out undermines our efforts. She’s right, of course, but that doesn’t help my desire to control the situation to alleviate my frustrations.

So, here we are, after two months of false alarms, tantrums, bribery, messes to clean up, long stints sitting on the potty and only slow progress to show for it. But something has changed. I have.

I am learning to let go of the desire to control the situation, to become focused on what I can do to facilitate rather than desperately struggling against the waves to force a resolution that never comes. This is a key lesson in life. The Serenity Prayer , written by esteemed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and often used in addiction recovery groups, says, “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed…”

Children give us constant practice with this precept. Whether it’s potty struggles or food struggles (which I’ve described similarly in the past), children test our limits, probe the boundaries of our self-control and don’t just push us to become better–they require us to become better if we are to be the best parents we can be. Sometimes, that means letting go of our own desires, hang-ups and issues.

 

Some Clarity

A few weeks ago, K and I met with the ad litem in the kids’ case (the attorney appointed by the court to represent the best interests of the children). He’s a good guy and provided us with a lot more clarity about the situation than CPS has.

Unfortunately, the news was not the news we wanted to hear. Not only does the ad litem believe the children will be going back to family, but he indicated that they would likely go back well before the twelve months for the permanency plan is complete.

We’re likely to have Abe and Bess for a few more months, but it is very unlikely that the two will be our “forever family,” as they say. The upside is that the ad litem believes there will be a safe place with family for the kids to return to: the situation was described to us as “a good family with a wayward daughter” (the mother of the children). That being the case, it probably is in the best interest of the children to return to family members who can love and care for them. But that will not make it easy to let go.

I’m not sure if knowing this far in advance is a good thing, either. Yes, it gives us time to prepare for the day when we will have to send the kids away; if worked through properly, that could prove very helpful. Conversely, if we don’t work through the impending loss in a positive way, it could be quite the opposite. Most of all, K and I must be careful not to guard our hearts too much–we need to give these kids all the love we can in the time that we have with them. And, nothing is done until it’s done. Despite the high likelihood that the kids will go back, nothing is a sure thing yet.

This puts K and I in the awkward position of needing to decide what our plan  will be in the likely event that the kids go back to family. We’ve started to discuss, but a plan is still in the works. We’ve decided it will be best to take some time off before accepting a new placement to make sure we’ve properly worked through our emotions. How much time has not been decided. With our available time away from work largely exhausted for the rest of the year, our next placement would need to be school-age children if we accept a placement sooner rather than later. If we want to try again with small kids, we’ll likely need to wait until 2017. No decision has been made about this.

In the meantime, we’re going to focus on getting and giving all the joy we can, continuing to strengthen our relationships with Abe and Bess and providing whatever we can to brighten their futures, whatever that future may be.

Fortune and Glory

I am concerned about the way we talk about God’s glory in the modern church. Not because there’s something wrong with wanting to pursue God’s glory, but because I think the focus we have on God’s glory skews our theology in problematic ways.

I began preparing for this post by studying the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible translated into English as “glory”. I thought to go through each of them, but they are similar enough in meaning as to be amendable to summary. The Hebrew words (Strong’s H155, H1926, H1935, H1984, H3367, H3519, H6286, H8597) translate to “glory, splendor, dignity” in most senses, but occasionally “reverence.” There is a strong intimation in the Hebrew (at least for H3519, the most commonly-used word) of importance and weight, as in when we say that something has “gravity” in English. The Greek words (Strong’s G1391, G2744) include “a high opinion” and “splendor or brightness, as of the stars,” in addition to the specific meanings “the majesty belonging to God (or Jesus)” and “an exalted state or glorious condition to which Jesus was raised after the crucifixion and to which true Christians shall enter after the return of the savior from heaven.”

In much of the Bible, when the “glory of God” is mentioned, the intended understanding is that “glory” is an attribute of God, something that is revealed to humanity in the presence of God. I would venture to speculate that “glory” is our crude way of describing the existence-altering experience of a confrontation with the all-powerful and loving uncreated creator of all things. In other places, we are told to “give glory to God.” When the words are used in this fashion, the intent, I think, is to give reverence and deference to God, not to attempt to add to the majesty of God.

I want to dwell on that last idea for a moment, because I think that’s what’s held in mind in the modern usage of doing something “for the glory of God.” God is. When God tells us that God’s name is “I am,” we need to read the full mystery into that precise but expansive statement. God is complete in and of God’s self. Part of the theological definition of God (as omnipotent and sovereign) is that God does not need anything and is self-sufficient. By that understanding, God’s glory is something that simply is, that cannot be added to by humans, because if it could, it would no longer be complete within itself. So, to be clear, our actions do not give God glory in the sense that we add to God’s glory. And so, we must be very careful when we say that we are doing something “for” or “to” the glory of God.

The word “glory” functions in the Gospels in much the same way; when God’s glory is spoken of, word “glory” seems to signify God’s awesome (in the classical sense) and transformative presence. On the other hand, when the words appear to “give glory” to God, the meaning is to praise. A very notable exception that seals this interpretation for me appears in John 17:24, when Jesus asks that the believers see the Glory which God has given to Jesus. This exception proves the rule because the meaning of the given glory is Jesus’s exultation and divinity, not praise or fame or reputation. The use of the same word (in Hebrew, English and Greek) for two very different ideas is confusing.

Looking at Romans, Paul seems to have the same understanding of the usage of the word “glory,” as when he says that men “…exchanged the incorruptible glory of God for an image in the form of corruptible man…” Romans 1:23. Likewise, in Romans 4:20, Paul uses the phrase “giving glory” in the sense of praise.

In Romans 2:9-10, he states that “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. I believe that what Paul has in mind here is a promise of glorification in the same way that God glorified Jesus. But the inclusion of the words “honor” and “peace” make us think of glory in the context of fame and reputation—the human understanding of the word. And therein lies the real problem.

In the scriptures, as a descriptor of God, “glory” is ontological: it is an aspect of God’s being. In human uses, “glory” is teleological: it is based upon achievement and reputation. Thus it is that Indiana Jones speaks of “fortune and glory,” the rewards of the treasure hunter—er, archeologist.

The first entry under “glory” on www.dictionary.com says: “very great praise, honor or distinction bestowed by common consent; renown.” Only farther down the list do the Biblical definitions occur.

The linguistic mistake, then, comes with the assumption that all glory comes from the opinion of others. Were that the case, we could add to God’s glory by changing the opinion of others. But, as I said above, God’s glory simply is. The pursuit of God’s glory is a pursuit of God’s presence and being, not cheerleading, or marketing or (as is the sexy term these days) “branding.”

In a sense then, it is entirely appropriate to do something for the glory of God—if the meaning is that one is moved by the experience of relationship with God to do something. But when I hear the phrase used, it seems that the usage of “for” means “for the benefit of.” And in this sense, the phrase “doing something for (or to) the glory of God” is not for God, it is for self.

Such a statement must of course be defended. Let me use an example—sports teams. When fans talk about a sports team they favor, they usually don’t say, “the Patriots won;” they say “we won,” or “my team won.” Psychologists and sociologists attribute this to a pleasure derived from associating oneself with success. Sports on some subconscious and abstract level allow us to appropriate the human glory of others and to claim it personally. This thought is supported by the prevalence of fan superstitions: lucky underwear, ritual action, or even whether one must be watching (or attending) a game in order to assist the team’s chances of success. These superstitions allow us to rationalize our appropriation of the glory of the team; we can tell ourselves that we personally (in some supernatural way, perhaps) contributed to the team’s victory.

Let’s take that back to God. If we believe that God’s glory is in the opinion of others, then by raising God’s reputation we are raising our own reputation as God’s children. There are two fallacies here: that God’s glory becomes our glory by anything other than grace and that God’s glory is dependent on something outside of God.

I’ve been working on this post for a few days now, mulling it about in my head (it still seems clear as mud). Last night I attended a non-study study group at my church led by a young pastor I greatly admire. The subject for that night and several weeks to follow was “Christian Words”: those words we use so commonly as Christians but often fail to think about what they mean, leading to shallow or misguided theology. Use of the word “glory” fits squarely on this list, I think.

So perhaps we are misusing words when we talk about God’s glory. That could perhaps be a minor thing except for the emphasis Christians (particularly American evangelical Christians) place on God’s glory. If we’re going to emphasize God’s glory, we’d better make damn sure we use the words right.

What I see is a belief that, perhaps second to going to heaven, our focus is mainly upon God’s glory, but understood under the human definition as reputation. This idea is so pervasive that I have spoken with many Christians who, some avowedly, believe that the purpose of humanity’s creation was “to give glory to God.”

This is not attractive to the unchurched. In one sense, this can be construed as postmodern—God is only as powerful as we all agree God is. Hmm. Worse, we get the image of a narcissistic God who cares only about being praised. Thankfully, neither of these ideas are theologically sound.

We need to be clear to ourselves and others about the place that God’s glory has in our theology. God does not need our praise and we cannot add to God’s glory. Therefore, God’s own glory is not God’s purpose in creation, nor some demanded obeisance from us.

Of course, it is just and right and proper for us to “give glory” (in the Biblical sense of acknowledgement and praise) to God—God has given us much to be thankful and grateful for. More important, I think, is that one who has a personal experience of God cannot but be in joyful awe.

We ought, then, to focus on helping others to experience God’s glory; that is, to have a personal experience of the transformative glory of God. It is in relationship with Jesus that God’s glory is experienced—once experienced one’s opinion is forever changed. That relationship, I think is God’s purpose in creating us and should be our purpose in making disciples of others.