Friday, October 31, 2014

Opposites Attract--From Good to Bad to Good

We all marry the wrong people, because we are all sinners.  We all bring baggage into the marriage.  Sadly, sometimes the baggage is too much for the marriage to survive--even when the two people have good intentions towards one another.  Is there a view of marriage which gives the two people the best chance for survival of the marriage?

Opposites attract which begins as a good thing.  Your heart gets the pitter-patters, because you have come across someone who is innately different from you--yet they desire to be with you--even desire, supposedly, to spend the rest of their life with you.  This provides the intoxicating elixir called romantic love.  This is a good thing.  But for this romantic love, the human race would die out.

Yet, this state of intoxication doesn't last long.  The differences which were charming become tiresome and even the basis for disagreements and, many times, profound contempt for one another.  Take me and Debbie in our early marriage as examples.  I was organized--Debbie was not.  I highly valued truth--Debbie not so much. Debbie is very relational--I was not.  Debbie has great empathy--me not so much.  So, you can well imagine that we had disputes.  I valued having an orderly home and life over relationships with people.  This led to many, many conflicts over topics ranging from housekeeping, bill paying, parenting, to picking a church.  Our differences almost led to divorce.  This is the bad part.

Once you reach the bad times, the question is whether the bad times will continue to get worse (leading to divorce) or whether there will be redemption.  In order for there to be redemption, the differences must be seen not as issues to overcome, but as blessings.

Over time, I have come to appreciate Debbie's relational nature.  Thanks to Debbie, I finally have a relationship with my mother that I never dreamed possible.

Over time, Debbie has come to appreciate my organizational skills.  This has made our home more of a refuge from the disorganization of the world.

Over tine, I have come to appreciate Debbie's empathy.  This empathy has caused me to be empathetic towards myself, which has quieted the voices of suicide and depression.  Empathy towards myself has led to deeper relationships at work and in our neighborhood.

Over time, Debbie has come to appreciate the truth.  Speaking the truth allows us to deal with heart issues that we swept under the rug for years.

So, "opposites attract" seems to be a genetic and/or Divinely appointed means of building stronger and stronger marriages.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Religious Psychology, "The Road," and My Father

Paul Zahl, quoting Aldous Huxley, says that we all need a religious psychologist.  But I was brought up Baptist.  I was told, over and over, that the proclamation of the Word is what I most needed.  For once, the Baptists were actually right.  When the Word is rightly proclaimed, it pierces our hearts and changes our perspective on God, on people, and allows us to love more.  This piercing of the heart is where the psychology comes in.  Indeed, St. Paul may have been the first person to understand and write extensively about psychology.  "Why do I do the things I shouldn't do, and leave undone the things that I ought to do."

When we view Christianity as an interpretive lens for life, it becomes a true psychology--a freeing word--a means for "getting through the day"--because "nobody gets out of this life alive." (Axl)  One of the most helpful interpretive principals taught first by St. Paul, but really honed by Luther, is the principal that the Word first speaks Law, but then this is followed by Grace.  The Law exposes our sin, and Grace tells us that God is, nevertheless, on our side.  God is on our side even when we repeat sins--just look at the stories of Abraham, King David, King Solomon, and Samson.

This Law/Grace modality, which is a profoundly and uniquely Christian view, of interpreting life finally allowed me to deal with the life and death of my father.

My father was 47 when I was born.  He was probably a little old to be starting a family, but he wasn't willing to have children until he was able to provide for us.  My sister was born two years later.  My father grew up woefully poor on a struggling red dirt farm in northern Tuscaloosa County during the Great Depression.  It irks me to hear people compare our recent economic issues with the Great Depression.  No one in the US went hungry this last time, while millions were woefully destitute--suffering and dying from hunger and sickness--during the Great Depression.  Even the poorest in our country had cars, cell phones, flat screen TVs, and food galore this last time.  This is why my father waited so long to have children.

When my father died, in 1997, I was busy with my law career, with two young children, and our third child had just been born five days before my father passed away.  I wasn't there for him when he died--I thought that I was too busy to spend the time with him that he would have enjoyed.  I was a self-centered prick.  I was trying to make my way in the world, and it was extremely stressful.  Two of the attorneys that I worked mostly with had psychological problems which only exaggerated my own psychological problems.  This led, in part, to suicidal tendencies on my part, and on the part of another attorney who worked for one of them.  So, I wasn't there for my father when he died.

Then I read "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy.  My pastor and I were discussing McCarthy the other nite, and I told him that my lens for understanding the book was the Law/Grace dichotomy.  I told him that this caused me, and causes me, to weep whenever I read the ending of the book.  So, whenever I feel myself becoming hard-hearted or disconnected from my wife, I just read the ending of the book again.

He said: "Tell me."  After I finished, he said: "Wow, I've never read it that way before, but you're absolutely right."  I'm not looking for pats on the head--I'm telling you his comments to bring home the efficacy of the Law/Grace lens.

The book is about the journey of a father and son through a post-apocalyptic world.  The tale is so very, very dark that I've never read the entire book again and can't watch the movie.  This is the Law portion of the book--the portion of the book which exposes the sinfulness of man, the difficulties of this world, and the ever-present certainty of death.  Indeed, McCarthy always brings these truths to the forefront in his books.

"He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” 
― Cormac McCarthyThe Road

Then, you get to the end and the father dies, seemingly leaving his son alone.  The boy leaves his dead father on the beach, not sure of what to do--and utterly, completely alone.  When he gets to the road, he finds he's not alone.  Is this person going to eat him, kill him, rape him--we've seen all of these things in the book.  No, this man reflects Grace.  For this man is armed to the teeth--which is what was needed to survive.  He could offer greater safety to the boy than his father ever could.  He helps the son bury his father.  What's more, the man had a wife and child, and the boy had been yearning for companionship with another child, even subjecting he and his father to potential dangers to try and find a child for a friend.  The fact that the book is so dark only serves to make the light at the end that much greater.  The wife, the boy's new mother, holds him and speaks to him:

“The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn't forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” 
― Cormac McCarthyThe Road

And McCarthy even expressly reflects upon the light.  Throughout the book, the father has a constant rejoinder to the son that they are "carrying the fire."  In this landscape where men have become the worst of mankind (cannibals, sodomists, etc.), the boy and his father had rejected that.  They were carrying the fire of what was good in man.  At the end of the book, the father tells the son, as his dying words, that he is leaving his son behind to "carry the fire."  The father then goes on ahead--to prepare a way--"for in my Father's house, there are many rooms.  If it were not true, I would have told you so."

“You have to carry the fire."
I don't know how to."
Yes, you do."
Is the fire real? The fire?"
Yes it is."
Where is it? I don't know where it is."
Yes you do. It's inside you. It always was there. I can see it.” 
― Cormac McCarthyThe Road
The word of Grace to me was that the father had done his job--he had walked beside his son in this life, and he was "going on ahead."   The father was satisfied at having done his job.  He wasn't looking for praise or affirmation from his son--he knew that he would hear "well done, good and faithful servant" soon enough.  These are certainly the words that my father heard when he passed away.  This gives me comfort--that, notwithstanding my abject failure at being a son--my father passed knowing that he had done his job, that he "had carried the fire."  The amazing good news is that he passed that along to me.  Now, I "love to tell the story, the old old story, of Jesus and His love."

Praise be to Christ.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Abreaction in South Park (Lorde's "Royals" and Randy)

I regularly watch South Park with my sons.  It helps keep me current on the culture and news (I just can't watch Fox or CNN any more--they're both so jaundiced), and more importantly it allows me to laugh with my sons.

In "The Cissy," Matt and Trey once again make fun of political correctness.  This time it's in the context of transgender rights.  At the end of the episode, thought, the writers are sympathetic to those at whose expense they give us humor.  They also make fun of "Autotune"--in this day and age, it seems true that you don't have to have a good voice to make it in the world of pop music.  But underneath decrying political correctness and the absurdity of our idolization of pop music stars lies a different word, a different voice--the word and voice of Grace.

I didn't realize the magnitude of the word of Grace that Sharon spoke to Randy until I looked into Lorde's music this morning.  Lorde's music directly refutes and exposes the absurdity of our culture's obsession with success (Maybach's and Cristal) and celebrity status (who we treat like "Royals").

As I watched the video "Royals," I was struck with tears of joy and wonder.  Why did Matt and Trey choose Randy to be Lorde?  Why not one of the kids?  Why not one of the other parents?  Why Randy?  (A writer from Spin Magazine has determined that Randy is Lorde, and is going to expose him.  He decides not to, because he is struck by the humanity of Lorde's/Randy's music.  In this day and age, does any reporter ever make such a decision?)

It helps to understand Randy's identity.  He's a geologist--not a very sexy or high-paying job.  He's been married to Sharon for a long time.  His son Stan is a good kid, but nerdy, not one of the "popular kids."  His daughter, Shelly, is always screaming (and I do mean screaming): "Leave me alone Dad.  Stop nagging me all the time...You don't even understand me."  Randy is a typical middle-aged, middle class man--a group of people that seem to be given no respect any more, by anyone!  Anyone, that is, except Matt and Trey.

Matt and Trey actually laud Lorde's music (despite the Autotune)--Sharon says that those who reject her music have lost touch with "being human."  Lorde's music says that it's okay to live mundane lives--one's of little worldly success.  In fact, once gets the distinct impression that she's saying that such people are actually the "Royals."  So having Randy be Lorde is simply genius--it's a word of respite to the least-liked, and least understood, group in America--middle-aged men.  It's certainly that way in God's kingdom.  He didn't come for the rich, successful, those venerated by the world.  He came for those oppressed by or simply ignored by the world.  Jesus came for folks like Randy.  Randy is the true "Royal" in God's economy of things--in God's kingdom.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What does death say about life?

Recently, Paul Zahl said:  "What does it say about life that it ends in death?'

I've been pondering this statement daily since.

If we go back to the Garden of Eden, we see that God cursed the soil (work), and He cursed childbirth (children).  As I've previously written, God did this because:  a)men will put their work before God and family;  and b)women will put their children before God and family.  So, the curses are designed to keep us putting God first, but they are still curses.

This means that life on earth is cursed.  It may have been gracious for God to curse life on earth, given our idolatrous hearts, but it's still cursed.  Life, in other words, is not the best.

The fact that life ends in death confirms this.  If there is a God who cares about us, He wouldn't leave us in a perpetually cursed world.  In fact, the flaming swords at the Garden of Eden were put there so that man couldn't sneak back in, eat of the Tree of Life, and live forever in this cursed world.

So, I think the fact that life ends in death confirms that there is an afterlife--at least if God is merciful.  In PZ's latest book, he describes the one word that a "floater" (someone hovering on the ceiling of his hospital room over his dying body) needs to believe about God--mercy.

If God is merciful, then we can expect that He has prepared something better for us.  Indeed, Jesus confirmed this.  "In my father's house, there are many rooms.  I go there to prepare a place for you."

So, why life?  Perhaps it is because we can't understand mercy without having experienced non-mercy.  This morning, Tullian wrote that: "at age 25, I thought that I could change the world.  At age 42, I know that I can't change my wife, my kids, my church, and certainly not the world."  This turned Tullian more and more to God's grace.  This turns me more and more to God's grace.

The afterlife is going to be that much greater, because we have lived in this world.  Yet, we are not to reject this world.  If Jesus came into this world, and lived amongst us (exhibiting love to all),  who are we to think that we shouldn't embrace this world and live out lives of love towards our fellow man?

The Kingdom, which Jesus discussed over and over, is already, but not yet.  It has broken through into this world, but not fully.  The best is yet to come.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Walter White, the Work of Men, and God's Strange Love

I watched the last three episodes of Breaking Bad again and saw yet more of the profundity of the show.  For four seasons and 15 episodes, Walt said that he did it all "for his family."  In the last episode, he sees Skylar for the last time, and he's giving his parting words.  She says: "Don't tell me that..." (obviously going to say--don't tell me that you did it for all our family).  Walt surprises her and all of us with his truthfulness:  "I did it for me.  I enjoyed it.  I was really good at it."  Earlier in the episode, Walt recalls a birthday celebration before it all began when Hank said: "Walt, get a little excitement in your life.  Come with me when we bust a Meth lab."  Of course, it was due to Walt's ride-along on such a bust that he met Jesse, and so began his life of crime.  Walt delved further and further into the criminal world--all the while telling himself that he was doing it for his family.

How blind we all are--in so many areas of our lives.  For men, it's often a blindness to the role that work plays in our lives.  We define ourselves through work.  If we're successful in work, we have a meaningful identity.  We become Heisenbergs.  Yet, we tell ourselves that we're chiefly working to provide for our families.  As we grow older and look back upon our lives, we realize that the work often superseded the real needs of our families--to have a present, kind, loving father--such as Walter started out.  If we're fortunate, God reveals this blindness to us while we can still change.

Over the years, my view of God's grace has grown and grown and grown.  Now, when I read the Old Testament, I read it as one acquainted with Christ and His strange love.  He loved not the good, but the bad; not the strong, but the weak; not the successful, but the failures;  not the well, but the sick;  not the upright church-go'ers, but the Jimmy Hale Mission-go'ers.  Indeed He loves all, but the good, strong, successful, well, and upright people can't recognize His love until they first realize that they are sinners.  That's why Jesus upbraids the Pharisees time, and time, and time again.

As displayed in WW, one of man's chief sins is to place work above everything else.  And, all the while, we delude ourselves into thinking we're doing it for our families.  So, in order for man to recognize the idolatry inherent in placing work number one, as told in Genesis, God placed "thorns and thistles" in the earth that man was tilling.  This is almost always spoken of as a curse--as a bad thing.  In fact, it's the opposite.  Eventually the thorns and thistles in our work--whether it's being passed over for a job promotion, having a difficult boss, representing ungrateful people, or the milieu of other negative repercussions of work--cause us to realize that work is not the "be all and end all."  It is not how we are to define ourselves.  Work is meant for us to enjoy, for us to provide for our families, but not for us to worship.

With Walter White, it took the complete devastation of his criminal enterprise, of all of his work, for him to come to this realization.  By God's grace, may we be less blind than WW.

By the way, in a recent interview, Bryan Cranston intimated that there might be more BB.  Let's hope so!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Eminem's Devastating Diagnosis of the Human Condition

"Slim Shady's crazy.  Shady made me, but tonite he's rock-a-by-baby."

In the "When I'm Gone" video, Eminem appears at what is clearly an AA meeting.
In response to: "Is there anyone else who'd like to share with us tonite," Enimem launches into one of the most confessional raps/songs/speeches that I've heard.  As Christians, we're supposed to confess our sins one to another.  Eminem gets this.

He begins by telling us how much he loves his daughter--that he would "give an arm for her"--that he would "destroy anyone who tries to harm her."  What happens when you then become the person harming her--you become the "main source of her pain," he raps.

"Daddy, where's mommy?" (They've been divorced two times.)  He dismisses her saying that he's got to write a song and catch a plane.  He tells her to "swing by herself."

Then, "you turn right around and, in that song, tell her you love her--and put hands on her mother, who's the spitting image of her."

Talk about a divided self--not doing what he desires (loving his daughter) but doing what he doesn't desire (leaving his daughter, even doing violence to her mother--the "spitting image of her").

Remarkably, Eminem arrives at the same place as St. Paul:  "Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from this body of death?" "Tonite, he's rock-a-by-baby."

In Christianity, we believe that self-improvement plans don't work.  We believe that we are such inveterate sinners, so incapable of doing the right thing, that a death is necessary.  St. Paul cried out for deliverance.  Eminem cries out for deliverance.

St. Paul gave us the answer: "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

How can this be the answer to the divided self?

Our divided selves react negatively to the law.  When someone tries to tell us how to live our lives, we are prone, even programmed perhaps, to do the opposite.  When our wives, bosses, even best friends try to tell us what we should do, we revolt!  We hate the law!

How much worse is it then, when we believe that God is laying the law down for us to follow?  We revolt that much more.  Sure, some people may seem to outwardly keep the law, but their hearts are not in it, they're not in love with God.  As Jesus said, if you look in their hearts, there is no goodness, only self-righteousness.

But, when we realize that Jesus removed the demand of the law--that we are free from "having" to keep the law, then we "want" to keep it.  When we know that God loves us, irrespective of our actions, we are slain--maybe even "slain in the spirit," as the Pentecostals claim.  We die, and a new person arises--a person who, through the grace of God, begins to keep the law out of love for God, not out of duty.

"All this time I couldn't see.  How could it be that the curtain is closing on me.  I turn around, find a gun on the ground, cock it, and put it to my brain.  Shady's _____"

Then, at the instant of death, Eminem's eyes are opened.  He awakes as if it has all been a bad dream.

"That's when I wake up, alarm clock's ringing, birds are singing, Hallie's outside swinging."

"I walk right up to Kim and kiss her, tell her I miss her.  Hallie just smiles and winks at her little sister."

In real life, Slim Shady does seem to have died.  Indeed, this song "When I'm Gone" was the swan song of "Slim Shady."  Eminem decided to kill off this persona and try for a new life.  According to Kim's mother, Kim and Eminem are back together.  She says that both struggled with addiction for years, but seem to be clean.  According to the mother, they intend to give their relationship another go.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

What Christians can Learn from Atheists

"Happy Clappy."  I saw a fellow wearing this shirt the other nite, and it has stuck in my craw.  Of course, maybe he was wearing the shirt in irony.  If so, he understands the world.  If not, he doesn't.

One problem (indeed the chief problem based upon my atheist friends) that atheists have with believing in God is that this is a messy, cruel world.  If there is a God, why can't the world be better?The chief problem that atheists have with Christianity specifically is that we preach morality, but live differently.  What can we learn from these very apropos criticisms?

First, during dialogue with a Jewish atheist friend, he told me that he had relatives who were victims of the holocaust.  "How can your God allow such a thing to happen?"  In my former days as a Southern Baptist, I would have said that God gave "free will" to man and, therefore, we are free to sin.  But this can't explain the scope of the sin of the Nazis, of Stalin, and of Mao.  Millions killed for no reason.

Now, I said: "This is a fallen world.  Whether you believe in God or not doesn't change the character of this world.  The question for me is whether there is a god who has a legitimate response to the world's fallenness.  Like maybe empathizing with humans in their experiences in this world.  So, maybe a God who would lock the gates to Eden so that we couldn't live forever in this fallen world.  Like maybe a God who shortened man's life-span after the Flood.  Like maybe a God who came into this world in the lowliest birth possible, in a backwater town, who was loved while he was healing people, but then ultimately was despised and killed for telling the church people that they were sinners.  Would a god like that be responsive to the fallenness of this world?"

We will never understand, certainly not fully, why the world is so messy.  Yet, Jesus' life reflects that He understood and indeed entered into life in this fallen world.  When Jesus' empathy is proclaimed, He becomes dear to fellow sufferers.  When Jesus' empathy is proclaimed, the self-righteous can let down their guard and embrace their own failings and pain.  Then, Jesus becomes a god who is approachable in our pain.

Second, Christianity is not primarily about morality.  As a good friend said: "Christianity is not really about morality--morality is just a byproduct."  As one of my sons said:  "The Bible isn't a rule book.  It tells us who we are--sinners; and who God is--our redeemer."  Christianity isn't  a religion with standards or rules to live by.  Instead, Christianity sets impossible standards for living--"be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect."  But it gets worse.  Even if you were able to live a life of perfect actions, unless your heart was fully selfless, it still wouldn't be good enough.  This is where Grace steps in and shuts the mouths of the outcasts (shut with thankfulness) and the self-righteous (shut with disbelief that they are not righteous).  Grace is the only possible answer to the impossible standards espoused by Jesus.

If we take Jesus at His word, we come to understand that we are ALL SINNERS, in need of God's GRACE.  When this is the message coming from Christian pulpits, instead of moralism, the atheist critique that Christians are hypocrites will lose its bite.