Some Stuff I’ve Learned Since Graduating

I graduated from college about a year and a half ago, so by now I definitely know all about how life works and I’m able to pass on my infinite wisdom to this year’s grads.

I’m kidding, of course. But I have learned some things about life since I graduated, both from intaking wisdom and inspiration from others (such as this awesome piece from RELEVANT magazine or this story on NPR) and just from living life and seeing how things have been a bit different than I expected. Everything I say here is just as much a reminder to myself as it is advice to anyone else. I’m still working on getting it right, too.

This is all purely based on my personal experience and I’m sure will not apply to everyone, but since it’s graduation season I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned since I entered the “real” world.

1. You’ve got to be proactive about going out and getting what you want. No one is going to do it for you.

Want a job? Go out and get it. Want friends? Be friendly.

I know from personal experience: this is easier said than done. I spent six months applying for jobs in the field I studied in school, technical writing, and for which I had previous professional experience. I currently work as a full-time nanny. All that talk you’ve heard about the economy being bad and whatnot? Well, turns out it is very true.

I am also an introvert. When I’m spent from working or socializing a lot, my idea of a good time includes sitting on the couch, talking to no one, and watching reruns of The Walking Dead. So it can be difficult for me to take that first step required to build new relationships.

But that’s the big point I’m making here: you’ve got to practice intentionality. While you may not see results immediately, you’ve just got to be intentional about putting yourself out there. No one is going to hand you internship opportunities or job offers or ready-made friends. I didn’t realize until after I graduated just how much good stuff was pre-packaged for us students by our universities: we were assigned a dorm room with a roommate and neighbors who became our first and (sometimes) most enduring adult friendships. We were constantly invited to lectures, special events, and career fairs that someone else had already put in the time and work to organize. While in school, we were surrounded by opportunity that was, for the most part, simply handed to us.

Don’t worryyou’re still surrounded by opportunity. The difference now is that you have to make the effort to find it and take advantage of it. No one is going to check up on you to make sure you’re progressing appropriately toward your goals; there are no curriculum guides or semester charts that tell you what you’re supposed to do next. The scary and also exciting thing about life is that you have to decide for yourself what you want to do next, and then you have to figure out how to make it happen.

Practicing intentionality applies to all areas of life: do you want to be thin and healthy? Be intentional about what you eat and how you exercise. We all wish that things we desire would just magically happen for us, but in order to truly achieve what we desire, we have to consciously work toward our goals every day.

2. Get out into the world and just start doing stuff.

This is the best way to figure out what you want to do with your life, discover what you’re good at, and learn how you need to improve. You’ve already learned from professors and classmates; now you’ll learn from peers, relatives, employers, and friends about what sorts of options are out there. Expose yourself to lots of things: read books and articles, from fashion magazines to news and political outlets, from food blogs to the New York Times. Pay attention to what excites you, what you want to learn more about, and what projects and jobs other people are doing that you think sound cool. Follow those feelings, because that’s how you figure out what you’re good at and what you want to do.

Find other people who are doing stuff you admire and ask them about it: How did they get there? What do they like about it? What don’t they like about it? What can a recent college grad do to emulate them? This all ties into #1: you’ve just got to put yourself out there. Get in the world’s face, ask lots of questions, and chase after things that interest and excite you. Be curious and proactive.

And by all means, look for jobs in your field, but don’t limit yourself. If an opportunity opens up for something that doesn’t fit what you’re “supposed” to be doing, don’t dismiss it, because you never know what interests it may stir in you or what doors it may open for further opportunities.

You won’t figure everything out right away, or by the time you’re thirty, or maybe ever, but that’s okay, too. You’ll keep experimenting and meeting new people and trying different things, and every experience will teach you more about yourself. Life is one long work in progress, and if you’re open to it, you’ll spend the rest of your life learning, growing, seeing, feeling, and doing.

3. “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.”

I had to steal this one from a movie I saw recently, Liberal Arts. Over the course of the film, the protagonista man putzing around in his thirties and working a job he doesn’t likelearns to stop living in the past and embrace his adulthood. The line I’ve used above comes from a conversation the protagonist has with his former professor. He confesses that while he knows he should act like an adult, he just doesn’t feel like an adult. The gruff professor replies, “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.”

This is a great way of saying that, in life, you’re never really going to get to a place where you feel like you have everything figured out. When I was in elementary and middle school, I greatly admired my high-school-aged siblings and their friends. They just seemed so grown up. They were beautiful and funny and confident and everything I expected to be when I was in high school. Then I got to high school, and I realized that, while I was maybe more confident and better at doing my makeup, I still struggled with insecurity and anxiety about my future.

So, I turned my admiration to college students: oh, how mature they were! Listen to them talk about their term papers! Watch how they drink coffee and decorate their dorm rooms with all the grace and ease of a well-rounded adult!

You can see where I’m going with this. As I progress through each stage of life, I tend to shift my admiration to those in the next stage, which I suspect is a way of reassuring myself that, while right now things seem difficult and uncertain, soon I’ll have it all figured out.

Turns out, life doesn’t really work that way. Sure, we grow and become wiser, more mature, and better equipped to deal with things over time, but there will always be a new decision to make, a new conflict to resolve, and a set of new paths to choose from. Rather than hoping to have all the answers, I think it’s more important to strive to be our best in each stage of life while continually getting better, because for most of us, “better” is the best we can hope for. Wherever you are in life—school, early career, marriage, parenthoodyou’ve just got to own it, do your best in it, and try to learn and grow from it. Oh, and don’t forget to have fun!

4. Life is different post-grad, and that’s okay.

This one sounds pretty obvious, but I’m specifically referring to schedules and habits. In my freshman year, while juggling a demanding honors program along with all of the other challenges that come with transitioning to college life, a professor once told us students that we would never again have as much disposable time as we did during college. I laughed and returned to the five hundred-page book I had to finish by the next morning. But I look back on that now and realize that he was right. Sure, college is busy, but when again in life will you have a schedule that includes two- or three-hour chunks of free time in the middle of the afternoon every Tuesday? And good luck finding a job that gives you four weeks off for Christmas, a week off every spring, and three months off every summer (but if you do find such a job, please let me know so I can apply).

Also, eating whatever you want and staying up until two o’clock in the morning catches up with you quickly. Do yourself a favor and break whatever bad habits you have sooner rather than later, because you really can’t maintain them if you keep any semblance of a “normal” adult lifestyle. I was very surprised at how soon I noticed weight gain, or that I could barely function if I got fewer than six or seven hours of sleep. (The other night I only got four hours of sleep, and I felt exhausted for the rest of the week.)

None of this is bad. Early adulthood is just a new, different stage of life, and that’s okay. Don’t spend it longing to recapture the glory days of college; it will make you bitter and sad, and you’ll miss out on the good things you’ve got in life right now. Again, you’ve just got to own it and continue to invest in the important stuff: work that excites you, friendships, healthy habits, your family, and your relationship with God.

5. Hooray! It’s finally over! But really, this is just the beginning. 

Last weekend I attended my brother’s college graduation, and one of the student speakers shouted in celebration: “Hooray! It’s finally over!”

Yes, graduation is a big milestone that deserves celebration. You’ve accomplished a lot, and you should feel proud and relieved. But like any ending, it’s also a new beginning. As Calvin says to Hobbes in the final panels of everyone’s favorite comic strip: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…let’s go exploring!”

6. Always remember what matters most.

I’ll end with a powerful quote from St. Isaac of Syria. While the journey of discovering who you are and what you’re interested in is a very important one in life, always remember that the foundation of your very being rests in Christ. In the midst of all of the other crazy demands and challenges of life, don’t ignore God. (I’ll be the first to admit that I’m constantly guilty of this one.) Making our souls right with him is the most important thing we humans have to do; may we not waste our life pursuing anything else above the one who gave us life in the first place.

“Why do you increase your bonds? Take hold of your life before your light grows dark and you seek help and do not find it. This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Happy Endings in Love and Life: The Keys to Satisfaction

Man was never created to be an independent creature, free to do as he pleased.  In the garden, God created man to be in constant communion with him. Adam’s sole purpose was found in relationship with God. God created Eve because it was not good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18).  Relationship is a core component of human nature.  Humans were made to be in constant relationship both with God and with each other. Eve broke that relationship when she took the forbidden fruit, choosing  her own way instead of God’s way, disrupting the natural state of man.  Man was no longer in constant subjection to God.  Listening to self instead of God soon became an option for living.  Obviously, this was not without consequence.  Discord and strife, instead of peace and harmony, immediately became the norm for life.  Hello to the world as we know it.

Marriage is an institution ordained by God designed to replicate the harmony in the garden.  Husband and wife entering into perfect harmony with each other; two becoming one (Genesis 2:25). However, just as it was in the garden, the husband and wife experience unity in their submission to God.  This requires mutual submission and self-sacrificial love.  Acting for yourself in opposition to your spouse results in strife.  For many, this kind of marriage seems very constraining.  It is.  You are not allowed to follow all your passions on a whim.  Marriage is a life time commitment to submitting to and loving another human being.  But in this commitment comes great joy that is not possible in relationship outside of marriage.

Desire is an important part of any relationship.  But as with any passion, desire can come and go.  Following desire can lead you down many stray paths.  Desire alone is not enough for a thriving relationship.   Commitment and security are needed.  In Song of Solomon, the bride says, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me (7:10).”  Without this firm sense of belonging, insecurity and doubt will destroy even the most passionate relationship.  Marriage provides a framework for desire where security and exclusivity allow it to blossom.

What about people in abusive marriages?  What about adultery?  There is no doubt that these will drastically affect and possibly shatter any union.  Strife and discord are inevitable in any relationship, no matter how committed the two spouses are to God and each other.  But my point here is not to write about the affects of sin on marriage.  My point is simply to present the best bet for a lasting love.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the story of a tragic love affair.  Anna and Vronsky are destroyed by a love that cannot satisfy.  Anna soon becomes consumed with doubt and insecurity regarding Vronky’s commitment.  Without marriage, there is no assurance of commitment or belonging, thereby making insecurity overtake passion.  Vronksy strives to retain his “manly independence” and keep a life apart from Anna.  He holds onto part of himself that he refuses to give to Anna.  This too prevents them from becoming one flesh.  Chaffing is the natural result.  Destruction instead of a blossoming love becomes the outcome of their affair.  Desire outside the bounds of marriage yields nothing but strife.

Anna and Vronsky are perhaps an extreme example of something so commonplace in our culture, love outside of marriage.  Anna and Vronsky’s destruction was in part caused by their rejection by society.  Today, “living together” is a common place behavior.  While it may not be openly destructive, as with any other self-centered behavior, it can result in nothing but inward strife and discord.  It may feel good at times, but does it satisfy? True satisfaction only comes through living a life in relationship with and submission to God, and, if that life involves the love of your life, a God centered marriage.

Why is God important?  This too goes back to the garden.  God created us to be in constant relationship with him.  Thriving is only possible through this relationship.  Veering away from God might lead to earthly pleasures but will never lead to ultimate fulfillment.  Jesus came so that we might be fulfilled in a post-fall world.

Are you engaging in a self-centered behavior right now?  Whether it is an extra-marital affair, or something like excessive drinking or viewing pornography, I have to ask you, “Does it satisfy?”  Not just on the surface, but deep down inside.   Jesus tells his followers, ”The thief comes to kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).”  Choose life.

Comparison as the Thief of Joy

It’s been famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” This reminder was recently quoted in a Christian talk, and my gut reaction was, “That makes sense.

We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to others but finding our value in Jesus.” While this conclusion is true, it doesn’t dig into why comparison is so harmful or where our true value comes from.

In fact, when I hear somebody say, “We’re all valuable to God!” my mind leaps to the concept of participation trophies. While the idea is well-intentioned, it doesn’t actually accomplish the purpose of a trophy. A trophy recognizes outstanding performance based on a valued goal, especially when compared to other performances with the same goal. In comparison, participation trophies set a minimal, basically valueless goal and rewards everyone for completing what is actually closer to a necessity. While it’s true each individual is valued by God, it could be a type of minimal value, similar to a participation trophy.

However, when I was reading Psalm 139 I realized two things. First, whatever value we have to God, it’s never a small amount. “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful to me.”  Even if God gave every single person a trophy for value, the fact that each of us has value does not diminish the worth of His regard. Instead, it contradicts the notion of a participation trophy since His regard is not minimal or an assumed fact. In fact, His regard for us is larger than anything we could conceive and more precious than anything on this earth.

God’s value for man is unlike the concept of a participation trophy but it’s also not like a trophy system that compares performances. See, a true trophy system evaluates performances in relation to an overarching goal but we’re not created with the same goal in mind. Psalm 139 tells us we were each created with a unique goal or purpose, “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Since God created each individual with a unique goal or purpose, there is no need to compete by the exact same standards.

Since God uniquely created individual purposes, comparison becomes the thief of joy. We are the most happy when we are fulfilling our purposes but when we begin comparing ourselves to others, we believe the lie that our purpose is the same as someone else’s. In this framework, we will never be happy because we are chasing a specific purpose that isn’t ours. We then begin to falsely compare and compete in the delusion that we are striving against one another for the same goal. Instead, our joy is found in fulfilling God’s purpose that’s uniquely created for us.

However, it’s also important to remember that we shouldn’t be anxious or worry about figuring out the specific path ordained for us. We were ultimately created with the overarching purpose to glorify God, and the psalmist in 139 says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” If we love God and seek Him in a way that remains true to our individual nature, it is then possible to discover our specific path and simultaneously glorify to God.

 

 

Your righteousness has nothing to do with you

Your righteousness has nothing to do with you.

1. It does not start with you.
2. It is not facilitated by you.
3. It does not end with you.

Most of us probably do not have issues with the first statement. It is easy to recognize that only Christ’s blood justifies us and sets us on the path of righteous living in the first place. However, the latter two statements tend to be more problematic for the Christian. This calls for constant reminders of the means and ends of righteousness.

We often think that because righteousness is manifested by our actions, the process of becoming righteous is our responsibility. Of course, we acknowledge that God plays a role in this process, and it is common for us to pray and ask for his help. However, if you are anything like me, after you pray for a little while, you return to discipline and self-directed control in order to be obedient to God and grow in righteousness. I tend to think of it as a sort of spiritual conditioning in which forcing myself to desire righteousness and acting on those desires makes me into a righteous person. The problem with this thinking is that both the desire for righteousness and the will power to follow through with righteous actions is only possible by the work of Christ.

16th century theologian, Martin Luther, asserts that righteous actions stem from a primary source of righteousness. This is the righteousness that justifies us, and it is only by faith that we can receive it as a gift. When this happens, Christ becomes ours and our souls are immediately transformed. We are changed and made capable of genuinely desiring and acting on pure things. Hence, success in living righteously is a matter of faith in the transforming power of Christ. This does not mean that we should instead put our efforts into growing in faith so that we can attain righteousness. Rather, it means that we should keep to the faith by which we are justified in the first place. In other words, the faith by which you turned to Christ is the faith that will produce righteous actions. By the grace of God, if you maintain your full dependence on Christ, you will be transformed.

Your righteous lifestyle is for the purpose of bringing others to God. God calls us to live righteously, but it is not for our own gain. Righteous living has everything to do with others.
Love, patience, and peace are qualities of righteousness that affect the way we interact with others. Righteous actions are an extension of God’s goodness from a believer to another person. A prime example of this is Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. Jesus lived as a perfectly righteous man and he spent his life healing the sick and comforting the weary. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus’ righteousness had a greater impact on others than it did on him. Our righteousness is not meant to merely improve our lives but to improve the way we live with others. Also, since this sort of behavior is only possible because of Christ’s transforming power, it can only point back to him. Righteous actions encourage our brethren in the faith and serves as a light to the nonbeliever.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking of righteousness as a progression that ends with you. Rather, think of righteousness as a work of grace in which the Kingdom of God is expanded.

By his grace we can possess a saving faith.
By his grace that same faith will bring about transformation.
By his grace our righteousness will point others to back to him.

Book Review: “Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church year at home (Holy Week & Easter)”

Doulos Resources recently released a series of short books outlining seasons of the Christian liturgical year. Guides for Advent & Christmas and Lent & Epiphany are currently available for purchase, and future editions will be released later this year. I just finished Holy Week & Easter, which is available for pre-order.

Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church Year at home (Holy Week & Easter) postures itself as a beginner’s guide to the (Western) liturgical year and traditions surrounding these seasons. Starting with a general introduction by editor Jessica Snell, the book is divided into two main chapters: “Holy Week” (written by Jennifer Snell) and “Easter” (written by Lindsay Marshall). In addition to outlining historical and global traditions as well as ways to involve children and community members in the season, the authors include Resources sections at the end of each chapter, listing various readings, music, and prayers related to Holy Week and Easter. These lists are a lovely taste of how these seasons have been celebrated over time, functioning both as a sort of educational survey of seasonal expression and as a suggestion for materials that can supplement the celebration of Holy Week and Easter in one’s church.

The authors highlight some important truths about Holy Week and Easter, as well as Christian tradition in general. Jennifer Snell, in her chapter on Holy Week, speaks of the need to slow our busy schedules in order to fully experience these seasons. In her introduction, Jessica Snell says that “Christians developed seasonal devotional practices that helped remind God’s people of God’s mercies,” affirming the importance of being mindful of these seasons’ significance to the Christian history and faith and how traditions and rituals aid such mindfulness. The authors rightly emphasize active participation in liturgical seasons, particularly within the context of one’s church. Jennifer Snell says it well in the quotation that sticks with me most: “No private devotion can substitute for the corporate journey to Easter in the company of your church.” Easter is more than a single Sunday service in the year; it is, as the authors continually point out, a season that is the focal point of the Church year, just as Christ’s resurrection is the focal point of the Christian faith.

I am by no means an expert on church history and tradition, but based on some research into topics I was less familiar with (and after running a few things by my seminarian husband), the book’s historicity seems to generally hold up (but again, I can’t make any truly authoritative statements in this regard). For other non-experts like myself, the book seems to be a good starting point for learning about various aspects of Western Christian tradition and a potentially good jumping-off point into conducting further research, if readers should desire to do so. The book’s success in this regard could have been even greater if the authors had included more citations of church history texts. It’s possible the authors (understandably) wanted to avoid an overly academic tone, but more prolific historical citations would have enhanced the authors’ credibility and provided additional historical resources for readers to explore. The Bibliography does include some historical works, but most are only directly referenced once or twice; even including a more comprehensive list of historical “Works Consulted,” or something similar, would have bolstered the book in this area.

I came away from the book feeling that the authors should have more clearly stated (even in the form of merely one or two sentences) that their focus is on Western Christian traditions and practices; while some Eastern church practices are mentioned briefly, the book primarily presents Holy Week, Easter, and the cycles of the church year through the lens of Western Christianity (that is, Roman Catholicism and denominations derived from it, such as Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Presbyterianism). This is implicit in the text, which, as one example, often references the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but readers who are unfamiliar with church history or any sort of liturgical tradition may not make that inference.

Unfortunately, the book contains some typographical errors; nothing egregious, but enough to be noticeable. For example, the title of a book cited, The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas J. Talley, is printed correctly on the Bibliography page but incorrectly when referenced in the text itself. Even the name of the book, as printed on the cover, does not match the book’s name as printed on the title page or front matter page: on the cover, it’s “living the Church Year at home,” while on the other pages it’s “celebrating the Church Year at home.”

Beyond these critiques, the book offers important insight into the history of celebrating the seasons of Holy Week and Easter, and it also provides inspiration for how and why Christians of all backgrounds should work to internalize and cultivate in their daily lives an active participation in the liturgical seasons.

Even the Holocaust is Open to Skeptical Manhandling

Openness is a form of vulnerability. Openness to question, openness to explore, openness to reach bold conclusions and overturn tradition: all the graybeard warnings about change are, to some extent, right. Openness and vulnerability are not necessarily good things, taken by themselves. In the Rialto Unified School District, somebody came up with a debate assignment on whether the Holocaust was real. Like as not, it was just a devil’s advocate argument taken in very, very poor taste. Nevertheless, it proves that even that today’s most ardent beliefs (hate, racism, and genocide are evil) are open to future questioning and skepticism. Though doubt is natural, openness to it is not uniformly virtuous, and can even be wicked. Continue reading Even the Holocaust is Open to Skeptical Manhandling

Why YOU Should Love the Homeless–Breaking the Cycle of Rejection

This past Saturday, my friends and I met Leonard, one of many living on the streets of LA, as we were walking in downtown.  Leonard started a conversation with us after we smiled and nodded at him when we were walking by.  Leonard was different because he enthusiastically responded to our small acknowledgement.  Most of the other people we encountered simply stared or totally ignored us.  This “hardness” is a natural result of their homelessness.

In order to survive, humans “harden” themselves to adverse circumstances. This hardness, or choosing not to care, protects from potential and constant disappointment.  In Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s father tells her again and again, “I cannot love thee.” At first, this made Catherine cry, but “then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed if I told her to say she was sorry for her faults(p43).”  Being rejected again and again hurts.  Better to be “safe” and closed off than to risk rejection by allowing other people’s actions to have sway.

Proverbs, too, sheds insight on this human response. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (13:12)  For people like Catherine, the idea is better to not hope at all than to hope and lose. In Catherine’s case, she initially craves her father’s love, but continual rejection leads her to adapt in a way so as to protect herself from continual hurt. So she chooses not to hope for her father’s love so as not to be constantly hurt by hope deferred.  For others, like Leonard, hope deferred can relate to a much broader spectrum such as hope of acceptance in society, a job, value, a place to live, or simply a place to stay the night. Rejection is an everyday occurrence in the life of the homeless, primarily that from passerby.  No wonder so many we passed simply ignored us—they are used to being ignored so choose to ignore so as to protect themselves.

Our actions have a cyclical affect.  Personal rejection leads to your rejection of others.  Being often ignored causes you to often ignore others.  Our own experience of the world is drastically shaped by other people’s actions toward us.  Just as bad put in, causes bad to be put out, a “good” action will likely have a similar effect.  Paying for a stranger’s coffee one morning will likely make them much more inclined to be extra nice and generous towards other people that day.  Our talking to Leonard (hopefully) brightened his day.  However, there is a substantial difference between short and long term cyclical effects.

It will take much more than a brief encounter to reach someone hardened by a life-time of abuse.  The Proverbs concludes by saying, “But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The desire to be loved and accepted is at the core of our being.  However much we may pretend otherwise, or harden ourselves from this desire, it is impossible to be “okay” without feeling loved and accepted.  This feeling can come in many different ways—from a stranger, from God, from a significant other, from a friend.  Constant love is needed to break a cycle of constant hate.

We cannot provide a constant source of love for every hurting individual we meet.  But we can constantly be showing love to every individual we meet.  We are able to do this because of Christ’s love in us.  We love because He loves us.  The ultimate fix to despair is the Gospel. I like to think that Leonard was different—”soft,” receptive, open— because he had the Spirit of God dwelling inside of him.  During our conversation, Leonard shared some verses he had just memorized that day.  Leonard had an eternal hope that affected his perspective.  Yes, his earthly circumstances did not suck any less because of his faith.  But his hope-based perspective allowed him to face the world with expectation instead of deferred born complacency.

This is not to say we should not be concerned about very tangible and earthly needs.  We are very much supposed to be concerned about physical brokenness! We can often love the hurting best by providing for them in physical ways.  While I am not sure this was the best possible way to love Leonard, my friends and I chose not to give him money but instead buy him some food from a nearby store.  I would have felt very convicted if I prayed for Leonard without addressing his physical needs (James 2:16).  Providing for the hurting in physical ways often substantiates our verbal proclamation of love.

Even though most people did not respond to my smile or friendly hello, I still think it was right to do it.  If I stopped saying hello simply because I would get spurned, then I, too, would become a part of the destructive cycle.  Don’t let other people’s responses determine your actions.  We are called to be cycle breakers!  Wherever you go, whether it be walking down the streets of LA or in your office, look for opportunities to show Christ’s love—both through word and deed.  Whether it be a simple smile and a hello or buying a meal for a person, your small action can help break the cycle of a hope-deferred existence.

*Quotes taken from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Penguin Classics.

*Image via Wikimedia Commons

Beauty is Passing, Perhaps still Important

Immanuel Kant said, “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” The beauty Kant saw in the starry sky impacted him deeply and moved him to wonder and awe which are the same traits we use to describe our  worship for God. For the Church, beauty shouldn’t only be used for superfluous adornment but as strong cultivators of the feelings which help us worship.

 

However, some churches would question the use of physical beauty believing it hinders rather than helps. With this mindset, beauty becomes a distraction when the worshiper stops paying attention to the meaning behind the object and instead focuses on the object itself. This is the sin outlined in the second commandment which says, “you shall not make for yourself a carved image…you shall not bow down or serve them…” The temptation to worship the beauty found in the creation rather than the creator is a real danger and for some believers, physical beauty fails to cultivate proper worship.

 

The Bible recognizes this danger and warns about the snare of physical beauty telling us, “Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.” Our human tendency gravitates toward prioritizing outward beauty. Physical beauty is easy to value since it’s present and tangible, but we are reminded, “Charm is fleeting and beauty is passing.” To find worth in beauty only for its present benefit is to then only find value in a brief and temporary satisfaction.

While it’s prudent to recognize these potential  dangers of beauty, it’s also important not to dismiss it altogether but realize it can play a significant role. In the appropriate context, the use of beauty should never become the forbidden graven image, a created object worshipped in the place of God. Rather, beauty is used to guide and increase the worship of God. This is why some churches include stained glass windows as part of their decor. The purpose of the stained glass is not to distract from God but to direct our attention to God through the resulting feelings of wonder and awe.

If the beautiful images found in nature and in man’s handiwork are able to generate worship, it’s also possible for the beauty found in man to also point to God. In fact, perhaps the type of beauty found in man best reflects the person of God since we were created in His own image. The danger is not beauty itself, but the temptation to over-value physical beauty. Physically, this means it is possible for us  to dress up for church to respect God but also as a means to generate worship of God through the beauty of our clothes.  

 

Ultimately, the better reflection of God is found in the beauty of our spirit which is why Peter says, “Do not let your adornment be merely outward — arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel — rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”  In comparison to the earthly beauty which perishes, the loveliness of our souls displays a far greater enduring spiritual beauty. While it is good to cultivate and appreciate material beauty, ultimately we must remember our focus should be centered around glorifying God through the cultivation of the imperishable beauty of our spirits.

 

 

 

Power Struggles with the Untamed: What Nature Can Teach You About Yourself

When you learn to ride a horse, you become painfully aware of two things. The first is that the reins in front of you are just an illusion of control. The second is that, no matter how strong your thighs are, if that horse decides you belong on the ground, there’s a good likelihood you’ll end up there pretty soon. A relationship with a horse is risky. There’s no way you can completely control an animal that weighs half a ton. Yet, as you might know from experience, a relationship with a horse is a privilege. It’s an honor to move with a beautiful creature that is so much more powerful than you.

When Christians talk about nature, we usually talk about creation stewardship. We care for the earth because in the beginning God called the earth good, and in the New Testament we see that God desires to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ. Yet even creation care can sometimes focus too much on controlling or ruling nature rather than learning from it. Are we to interact with nature simply because we were told to take care of it, or does it exist to teach us something? Rightly regarding nature helps us understand human power correctly, and it can give us insight into our relationship with the earth and God.

In Melville’s Moby Dick, we see that when man practices bad stewardship, he develops an unrealistic understanding of his power that leads to man’s destruction. Captain Ahab is driven to fight nature because his perspective of the world is anthropocentric—he assumes that he has the inherent right to conquer the whale and misunderstands who he is in relation to the natural world. Ahab’s missing leg and his “gashed soul” are, Melville tells us, the direct result of the attack of the great white whale. Despite this, Ahab is unable to accept his powerlessness in the face of nature, embodied by the whale, and he becomes obsessed with regaining power: “All…demonisms…all evil, to crazy Ahab, were…made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.” For Ahab, nature is the sole source of all human pain and destruction. Ahab completely relinquishes his roles as a husband and father and leads his entire crew into a dangerous oblivion, which ultimately claims the life of almost every crewmember.

The fate of Captain Ahab and his crew could have been changed if Ahab saw fault not in the whale but in himself. In his pride, Ahab fails to see nature for what it truly is, and he fails to see himself for what he truly is. In Ahab’s world, there is only domination. Either Ahab will dominate the whale, or the whale will dominate him. He will be either a slayer of the earth or a slave to it. But there is a middle way that Ahab has forgotten: man’s primary role as caretaker and lover of the earth.

Melville contrasts Captain Ahab with Ishmael. The only crewmember to survive the wreck of the Pequod, Ishmael does not claim control over the leviathan, and he includes many facts about the whale throughout his account of his journey, proving he is more interested in trying to know this unknowable thing than conquering it. He contemplates the foolishness of man in thinking that we can control nature at all: “However baby man may brag of his science and skill…yet for ever and for every, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest frigate he can make…man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.”

Oughtn’t we come to terms with the fact that nature could, at any moment, “insult and murder” us, as Ishmael so bluntly tells us it could? It is a harsh truth that the earth is more powerful than we are, but this truth does not have to destroy us like it does Captain Ahab, who is wrong in assuming that the harshness of nature means nature is against us. Nature can be frighteningly untamable, but that which is untamable is not necessarily evil. Instead of losing his sanity because he cannot control the earth, Ishmael humbly accepts who he is in relation to the earth. He hungers for knowledge of it but is not obsessed with overpowering any part of it, including Moby Dick. He recognizes that he cannot hate the untamable parts of the earth because they reflect something human. Contained within the earth there is an image of something with which he identifies. Ishmael ponders, “Consider both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”

The mysteries of the earth and endless depths of the sea remind us of all we do not know about this world and even about ourselves. Our souls are mysterious. Our bodies are mysterious. We gather facts like Ishmael, but the same questions God spoke to Job still hover over every created thing: where were we when all of this was created? How were the vast mountains and our tiny nerves fashioned? By reminding us of all we do not know and all we cannot know or control, nature humbles us. We, like Ishmael, should approach the earth not with the desire for control but instead with respect and a willingness to experience wonder. We are the creatures whom God made in His image, yet we have been given a world we cannot (and should not) fully tame, and that reminds us both of how finite human power is and how glorious our God is.

You should hug trees…Or at least, appreciate them: A Theology of Trees

Christians should care about National Arbor Day (to those who don’t know, that is today). Even if you are not a devoted celebrator of trees, it is worth your time to stop and consider what wonderful things trees are. Not only are they ascetically appealing, they are present in almost any climate, and provide shade and food. Practicality aside, the Bible illustrates many points through trees. The prevalence of trees and tree imagery in the Bible should shed light on other ways to appreciate and consider these majestic pillars of nature. To explore this idea, let us look at some specific examples of trees in the Bible and examine what they ought to signify to the Believer.

In some stories, the trees play a direct role in the narrative. In Genesis, Adam and Eve sinned by taking the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To Eve, the fruit was a “delight to the eyes” (Genesis 3.6). It appealed to her, not because fruit is deceitful and evil, but because fruit, by nature, is beautiful. Being tempted by the devil to act on her desires, Eve took what belonged to the tree as her own. In partaking of the fruit of the tree, Adam and Eve brought death and corruption upon the whole human race.

In direct correlation to the fall, even our salvation came about by a tree. Christ, our loving Savior, was nailed to a tree for the sins of man. He accepted this death voluntarily out of obedience to the will of God. Through his willingness to die on a tree, humans are restored and reunited with the Father. This tree, the one which was made into a cross for the death of our Savior, should be a symbol of hope. It ought to remind us of the merciful action of our Lord by which unworthy souls are made holy.

From death into life, even our daily walks are described in terms of trees. When Christians are thriving in their faith, it is said that they will bear fruit. You cannot see into the heart or judge the faith of another person. Yet, you can tell whether or not they are being spiritually fed because they will be acting in love, joy, peace, and so on. In the same way, you cannot see the roots of the tree. You cannot see the place where the tree receives its nourishment. You only know if it is healthy by the things that it is producing. Trees, then, exist as an image of the relationship between one’s heart and one’s actions.

Even the body of Christ is represented by a tree: Paul presents the imagery of the olive tree in Romans, showing the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles and revealing the beauty of the gospel. In chapter 11, Paul says that the Gentiles have been grafted into the tree, being made into a legitimate part of God’s family. The Jews who have rejected the truth are the branches that were broken off so that all men could have a share in salvation. Now, because of God’s abundant mercy, all men can be nourished by the tree. With this metaphor, the tree represents how each person can be a part of the family of God.

Today is a day where people take the time to celebrate trees for their beauty as well as their necessary contributions to our environment.
As Christians, we can also recognize trees as being a part of the story of our salvation. Trees are involved in our fall and our redemption. They also illustrate the other aspects of our Christian life, such as the picture of bearing fruit or the imagery of the Gentiles being grafted in. Today, take the time to celebrate National Arbor Day. Appreciate trees for their beauty, their necessity, and their existence as tangible reminders of the story of our salvation.