Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to be a good father

How to be a good father for your only daughter

  1. Play baseball with her and take her fishing. Let her put the worm on the hook herself.
  2. Read to her every single night. Introduce her to Narnia, Middle Earth, India, and Israel. Don't skip passages, even if you are sleepy. She'll learn to read sooner than you expect and call you out.
  3. Give her freedom. Let her roam the neighborhood and the woods.
  4. Be friends with her friends.
  5. Plant a garden and let her tend the carrots.
  6. Take her out to lunch every year on Valentine's Day, even through high school.
  7. Sing songs together in the car. "Oh We Ain't Got a Barrel of Money" is a good choice.
  8. Build her things. If you see her pining over the beautiful doll chest in the catalog, make one for her. Teach her to make what she needs from what she has.
  9. Help her learn to be brave and strong. Don't reward her for every little thing she does, but if once every decade you have to bribe her with a kitten to drink her milk or practice driving, that's fine.
  10. Call her often, even once she is a grown-up and capable of doing Things on her own. Even if you only call to say, "How's your car?" she will understand that you mean, "I love you."
  11. Let her grow up in poverty; she'll learn to watch for God's provision.  Don't make her the center of your universe; she'll learn that the work of God's kingdom is much larger than her desires. Do the work you love well and wildly; she'll never settle for a life that is not full of meaning.
  12. Love her in every way you can imagine, so that she will learn to love her Father in Heaven even more than she loves you.

His fourth day as a father: November 24, 1983

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Church windows

Directions: Enjoy, as always, the surprise of colored light streaming down upon the back stairway. Think of all times these windows were rewards for opening neglected doors and peering into forgotten rooms. Ask, with George Herbert:
Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word?
                  He is a brittle crazie glasse:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
                  This glorious and transcendent place,
                  To be a window, through thy grace.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

True Love Doesn't Wait

As a teenager, I never signed a True Love Waits card, never wore a promise ring, and never kissed dating goodbye. My distance from these "purity" movements came in part from indifference: during high school, I was too busy studying to put my virtue in much danger. At the same time, I resented the implications that "true love" was, first of all, expressed primarily through sex, and that I was supposed to wait patiently for marriage to express true love.  

Lest any of my readers are worried, I should say that I believe teenagers should remain abstinent. I believe unmarried adults should, too. As usual, the ways of the world (and the behaviors of many Christian adults) stand in pretty stark contrast to my ideals, and I don't pretend to know how to address all the problems of extramarital sex. I do, however, know that for unmarried Christians, there are some trends in religious language and culture that certainly aren't helping.  

When I read books, blogs, and articles about unmarried Christians, there is this troubling implication that we are supposed to be waiting faithfully for marriage. Take, for example, a recent article on the website for Relevant magazine. The author of "Tales of 25-Year-Old-Virgin" provides a thoughtful and honest account of the struggles faced by many young adults who feel isolated and impatient as virgins.  He opens his article with the question, "Is waiting really worth t?" The world tends to laugh at this question, and the church too-often responds with cringe-worthy exclamations about the joys of married sex.   Admirably, the author turns to Scripture for consolation, writing 

“Sex should be saved for marriage” isn’t the only thing Scripture tells us. It also says God knows the plans He has for us (Jeremiah 29:11). It says if we wait patiently for Him, He will turn and hear our cry (Psalm 40:1). It says His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). And, if all that is true, we should endeavor to run with endurance the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1), hoping for what we don’t see and waiting for it with patience (Romans 8:25). If, after 12 years, God still wants me to save sex for marriage, I have to believe those other verses still hold true as well."

I know I should be glad that this young man finds solace in the Bible, but as I read his article, I find myself shouting, "Those verses have nothing to do with marriage!" Perhaps he does not mean to imply that they do, but I have heard variations on this logic before. "Be patient, keep yourself pure, and God give you the desires of your heart in the person of a beautiful/handsome spouse." 

In Christian conversations about abstinence, there is an elephant in the room, and she's not wearing a wedding dress. 

The question I want to ask, the question I was once desperate for my mentors and friends to answer, is this: What if God doesn't care whether or not I marry anyone? What if one of the most important ways Christians can bear witness to the Gospel is by showing that marriage is not necessary for a whole, joyful, and complete life?

A few years ago, I attended a concert and prayer workshop led by John Michael Talbot, a Catholic musician, writer, and spiritual leader of a monastic community, The Little Portion. This community is made up of celibate men and women, married couples, and families with children--all committed to a common life of prayer, work, and community. After the workshop, I met some members from The Little Portion at the CD table, and as we spoke about their community and my life, they said, "Have you considered the religious life?" Knowing they meant religious orders, I said, "But I'm not Catholic." "Oh, that's no trouble, you could convert!" they laughed.

The attraction of their joy and love was so strong that for a moment I was tempted to abandon my Baptist upbringing, exchanging a few theological scruples for a life that seemed to embody the Gospel in a way I have rarely seen in the churches of my own heritage. 

Rarely have I encountered such a vibrant alternative to the status-quo in Protestant circles, and that should shame us.  Shame on churches that teach little girls to save all their love for Mr. If-Ever, or that answer the loneliness of young men with the vague and unbiblical promise that "God has someone special for you." (As my roommate once quipped, if you think God has already planned a spouse for you, you had better hope you're not Hosea.) Shame on single men and women who lack the courage and imagination to make Gospel use of the freedom we have. Shame on me for all the hours I have pined for a husband, not realizing that I was simply repeating Israel's demand in 1 Samuel 8: "appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have." 

I am thankful to have spent the last five years in a church that is unusual in this regard, thankful that I can say with honesty and integrity that I treasure my life as an unmarried woman, single but hardly alone.  I worry, however, about whether I will find such a wise home after leaving that community. I worry about whether it will be as easy for me to give thanks for singleness when I am no longer in my twenties, no longer surrounded by close friends who remind me that my life is complete through Christ and his Body the Church.   

Perpetuating the illusion that marriage will come to everyone is damaging and unloving to unmarried Christians. I don't want to rant about this, but I do want to call all of us in the Church, married and unmarried alike, to think about the ways our lives should transcend the question of whether or not we're allowed to have sex yet. Married and unmarried alike, we need to help one another dream better dreams than the vain imaginings the world offers us. 

If I ever do marry, I will enter that covenant with joy and confidence, marveling at the  strange and holy mystery of two becoming one. I will change my name, and I suppose I will even let Mr. If-Ever sleep with me.  But I'm not going to fret myself waiting for that day. I have good work to do and good friends to tend. Such love simply will not wait. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Is going to church necessary?

Yesterday I worshiped in my home church, First Southern Baptist Church of Terre Haute, Indiana. As an adult in a culture where I can choose to worship any place I like, there is something bracing about returning to a church I did not choose. My parents began attending this church when I was an infant, and as I grew up, we remained there because the Bible said that we should not forsake gathering together with other believers (Hebrews 10:25). The sermon at First Southern was on 1 Corinthians 8, and the pastor emphasized the first three verses: concerning knowledge that puffs up and divides, and love that builds up the church and its people.

In religious life, the knowledge that divides us can be doctrinal. However, other kinds of knowledge can prove a more subtle danger. If I know that some churches orchestrate their services with care, skill, and beauty, it can become difficult for me to worship in a service that does not come with a detailed outline and unswerving schedule. If I know that some buildings have stained glass, I might regret the plain sanctuary of a less affluent congregation. If I know that some Sunday school classes provoke lively, thoughtful discussion, I might resent other styles of teaching.

During his sermon, the pastor of First Southern mentioned a passage from C.S. Lewis's God in the Dock. In this essay, Lewis answers a number of questions about the Christian life. His response to the following question about the role of the church reminded me how important it is to humble knowledge--even right knowledge--to love:

 Question 16.
    Is attendance at a place of worship or membership with a Christian community necessary to a Christian way of life?

    That's a question which I cannot answer. My own experience is that when I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn't go to the churches and Gospel Halls; [...] If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament, and you can't do it without going to Church. I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit bean peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit. (God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994. 61-62)

How would you answer the question Lewis tackles? Is attending church and belonging to a Christian community necessary for the Christian life? 

Friday, June 8, 2012

A letter to my boyfriends

Dear Mr. P & Mr. H,
    It has been a long time since either of you received a letter from me, aside from the Christmas cards I send to all my friends. I'm not entirely sure why I feel moved to write one today. Perhaps because I am in my hometown, staying in a house just a few blocks from the house you grew up in, P, as well as from the schools we attended together. All around me are the neighborhoods where we would walk for hours: you each eventually figured out that I would much rather walk and talk all evening than go to a fancy restaurant or a movie.
   I was not, I confess, a very good girlfriend, either in high school or college. Tremendously self-conscious, absurdly slow to pick up on flirting, too introverted to be much fun in large groups. Too often I would worry myself sick over something instead of simply enjoying your company. And yet, I did enjoy dating you, and I know you each helped make me strong for the years that have followed.
   P and I had known each other since kindergarten, and so I was quite surprised when we realized we liked each other. I still remember being out at some overnight school trip with several other students and teachers. You and I were talking at breakfast, and one teacher told us that we would be riding in separate vans to the competition. Neither of us protested, but I remember noticing a strange reluctance in you and in myself -- we didn't want to get up from the table and get into our separate vans. I had had crushes on boys before, but I had never felt such a quiet and certain desire to stay with someone, to talk with him. In the years since, when I have been tempted to look for fireworks to determine if I like someone or not, I have remembered that quiet desire, and I have waited for it.
   H, on the other hand, was like a fairy-tale prince, appearing almost out of nowhere and showering me with beautiful letters on creamy thick paper, taking me out for concerts and carriage rides, insisting that we go through the entire bookshop holding hands. You dazzled and treasured me, and you gave me such music, so much music that I can hardly go a day without hearing some song you first played for me. You terrified me with your talk of down-payments on houses, baffled and delighted me with your patience and affection.
   Those are happy memories, but I'm still not sure what kind of letter this is. Perhaps a thank-you letter? I thanked you long ago for the good company and magical days, but perhaps I have not explained how grateful I am you for your protection. Don't try to remember some night of particular danger -- the protection I mean came long after we parted company. First, you have protected me from discontent, for while I liked you both very much, I eventually realized that I didn't want to marry either of you. When P broke up with me, and when I broke up with H, I was sad, yet I never doubted that these decisions were wise. Nor did I feel that I was less a person, less able to meet the world, because you were gone. That has saved me from much groaning and discontent.
    Yet here is a paradox: just as dating you taught me that I don't need to be dating or married to live a happy life, you also taught me how wonderful dating can be--and in that way you have protected me from settling. The respect you showed me, the creativity of your care for me, and the integrity of your behavior puts most men to shame.  With your examples as my standard, I have never been tempted to give a second glance or a second chance to men who lack those virtues.
    It has been a long time since I saw either of you, but that is natural. We have each built good lives for ourselves and for those we love. You keep building, and I'll do the same. Some of my prettiest bricks, there near the foundation, came from each of you.



Thursday, June 7, 2012

I have a photograph

Directions: Go the town and the house where you grew up. Find the old photo albums. Open the one you never paid much attention to as a child. Glimpse the world as it looked when you were born. Marvel at familiar faces looking impossibly young. Resolve to take more pictures.

Memorial Day Weekend, 1982. Mama (age 26) and her younger brother.
Christmas 1982
January 1984. Me with my uncle and (future) aunt. They would marry later that year.
Summer 1984. The year my parents and I moved from Texas to Indiana.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

House Hunting

I didn't find a house I was ready to buy on this week's trip to Mobile. For the short term, I'll be renting the upstairs of a beautiful old house -- more on that later. In the meantime, I have been reflecting on the questions I found myself asking about each house I saw -- questions that are concerned not only with the strength and structure of the house, but with the potential for making that house a home. 

Can I hear church bells when the windows are open?
How will it feel to walk barefoot through the hall?
Can I walk or bike anywhere interesting from here?
Does it have a porch? How many friends can I fit on the porch?
Will I hear train whistles as I drift to sleep? 
Will students be able to stop by without too much trouble?
Will I know my neighbors?
Where will I plant the garden? Could I add a fruit tree to the yard?
What churches are nearby?
How old are the trees?
Is it safe? 
Has it withstood storms in the past? 
Where will my friends sleep when they come to visit? 

What questions do you ask when searching for a new place to make your own?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"The time has come for you to go..."

Today: visiting more houses, then heading north for Indiana, with a stop in Mississippi along the way. Today: travelling with courage thanks to these sweet words:

Child the time has come for you to go
You will never be alone
Every dream that you have been shown
Will be like living stone
Building you into a home
A shelter from the storm

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Bay of the Holy Spirit

Today was a homeless Sabbath. Instead of singing hymns from a familiar pew, I spent the morning behind the wheel of my Honda Accord, praising God for unbelievably light traffic as we headed east out of Houston. As we drove, my mother and I discussed many of the details surrounding this trip we are making in order to settle the question of where I will live when I move to Alabama this summer. This is an exciting topic, but hardly a restful one.

At the Alabama Welcome Center, I collected an array of brochures and pamphlets about this new part of the world I will call home. I was most intrigued by a picture of a historical marker with "The Bay of the Holy Spirit" engraved at the top. It told of sixteenth-century Spanish explorers who returned from their adventures with tales of a haven they had named "The Bay of the Holy Spirit." Later explorers concluded that the Bay of Mobile is this harbor. After miles of signs for gun shows, adult superstores, and casinos along I-10, this  story startled me. How fitting, in these early days after Pentecost, to travel to the Bay of the Holy Spirit to seek my home. I want to make my haven in a place that is fable-come-true, consecrated to the Comforter.

Now let's see if I can figure out a way to explain that to a realtor.....

Public Domain image by Harry Davis