Friday, December 30, 2005

Evaluating Courtship

Having surveyed the basic scheme of both courtship and dating, it's time to evaluate both systems by the light of critical reasoning and personal experience. We start with courtship.

Courtship is in many ways an excellent answer to the romantic malpractice of the culture. It's no mystery that the world has gone mad in the area of love. All rules are out; no holds are barred; all bets are off when it comes to dating as today's America does it. Marriage is take-it-or-leave-it, sex is anything but sacred, and divorce is as much an option as communication. To this world, courtship speaks. It puts forth a robust vision of marriage, seeing it, not dating, as the main thing. This is excellent. It necessitates the observance of traditional (biblical) gender roles in which the man leads and the woman follows. This is also excellent. It emphasizes accountability and the involvement of the church. Clearly, this is a good thing. Each of these strengths is hugely significant. These aren't simply three good things about courtship, these are beautiful shades of a prism. In much of this system, we see God's design for men and women and their mutual association.

I can validate these aspects of courtship because I have done it. I will go into no more detail than that, because this is not a diary-blog, but let me just say that I look back on my courtship experience as a positive one. It set my sights on marriage, where they should be for adult men and women. It forced me to be a man, to take risks and seek the heart of a woman. It gave me a structure in which there were boundaries and rules and accountability. All this was excellent. I am able to look back on my courtship and say that I was helped to think through marriage, that I got to know the person I courted, and that God was by His grace honored in our conduct. Praise God for raising up this system and the church who taught it to me and then called me to follow it.

So that's the rosy side. There are drawbacks to courtship, however. One in particular stands out. Courtship is often conducted in lieu of dating. In other words, it replaces dating. As such, it tends to cut out some of the "getting-to-know-you" time of dating. Usually, a man notices a woman, strives to be around in inconspicuous but helpful ways, and then asks her to court. Keep in mind that courting equals consideration of marriage for both parties. In this brief sketch I've given, you can probably see the potential unhelpfulness of this scenario. Oftentimes, women are not comfortable jumping into a serious relationship with someone they do not know very well, even someone they may like! I completely understand. It's a tremendous thing to ask somebody to consider marrying you. It ought to be done with great care and with substantial knowledge of the person with whom you are involved. You can't simply rush something like this.

Here, then, is the achilles heel of courtship. In its attempt to exalt marriage, it diminishes unpressured interaction. Everything is heightened. The woman is oftentimes afraid, particularly if she isn't clamoring to get married (read: older). In churches where this takes place, courtship may actually have something of a reverse effect on marriage if it's not handled carefully. This may happen because women know that courtship is king at their church, that courtship means serious consideration of marriage, and that they are thus not going to court unless they are quite certain of their interest in a man. This disturbing and harmful trend does little to damage the romantic aspirations of the church's "beautiful people," or whatever you want to call them, but it does much to hinder those of the men and women who cannot snap their fingers and make a relationship appear. It is these people who stand to suffer the most, because they will not take a risk. They don't get alot of attention, and so there's not much opportunity to get to know the opposite sex in a meaningful way (remember, dating is out), and so they simply sit by their lonesome day after day, month after month, year after year, praying for something to happen. Meanwhile, they're the victim, albeit a willing participant, in a system that is theoretically excellent but practically flawed at a crucial juncture: getting to know people.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Christian Romance: Courtship or Dating?

I'm currently making an effort at outlining and evaluating the two main systems of Christian romance: courtship and dating. I think I did an okay job on courtship, but have had a bit of a harder time on dating as Christians do it. This seems to be because there is more of a prescribed order to courtship, while dating is more nebulous and free-flowing. Today, we'll take a bit more time to compare and contrast the two systems. Tomorrow, the evaluation.

Courtship is intentional and focused, with an end in sight. It is designed to allow two people to consider thoughtfully whether they ought to marry one another. Dating has a different purpose. It is designed to help people get to know one another. This can be for marriage, but it need not be. Courtship involves parents, church members, and total strangers (just kidding) in the process, soliciting their feedback on the fitness of each person for marriage and the overall health of the relationship. Dating involves only the couple, though of course others may be asked to participate in group dates or some such thing. If courtship is public, dating is private. Courtship also proceeds according to some kind of predetermined schedule. At certain points, the relationship is either discontinued or ratcheted up, depending on how things are going. This is to prevent hearts from becoming overly emotionally attached and to keep the relationship progressing along. Dating knows no such timetable. It works of its own accord and goes where it will (or won't). The two systems are thus quite different.

Most evangelicals approach romance through dating. Though at one point the church was quite intentional about marriage, this attitude waned in the twentieth century. The change is quite complex and not easy to trace out, but it seems that generally, church life became less intentional and more remote in the twentieth century. The culture became increasingly hostile to the thought and activity of the church, and the church seemed to respond in one of two ways. One, it withdrew. So went the Fundamentalists and Reformed types. Two, it accomodated. So went many of the mainstream denominations and a considerable number of evangelicals. Sure, many evangelical churches hung on to the gospel, but they began mirroring the culture in many ways, often intentionally, and even sought to do so in an effort to draw back outsiders. When this happened, much of the thoughtfulness that characterized eighteenth and nineteenth century Christianity was lost. A major part of this shift involved a largely empty doctrine of pre-marriage interaction. Where once a robust approach to romance existed, it fell by the wayside, and evangelicals looked increasingly to the culture to shape their romantic interaction. So rose dating in much of evangelicalism. It reigns in the current day.

Others in the Reformed and Fundamentalist camp clung to more involved romantic systems, including forms of courtship that persist in the present. And so evangelicalism finds itself in a familiar place on the issue of dating: divided. Now, the question is this: which system is best? Can the two compromise? We'll find out--tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Strange World of Christian Romance, Part 2

I promised an evaluation of courtship yesterday but have decided to hold off on that for a day. Because I first defined courtship, I now want to define the Christian understanding of dating. Please note that this is my own version of dating and that other renditions do exist. What I am about to offer is merely one take on the matter, though it has been developed from conversations with others.

Christian dating may in fact look quite a bit like courtship. There can be intentionality, a focus on marriage, and parental involvement. Perhaps the main difference, however, is that there is no set plan, no one way that the couple will necessarily end up together. The person who signs up for courtship signs up for some sort of prescribed system, much like I outlined yesterday. But Christians who date have not begun to get to know one another by a certain system. Significantly, one need not be heavily considering the other person in order to date them. This is a prerequisite of courtship. The person with whom you are interacting is someone you are considering quite seriously for marriage. Not so with dating. This can be happening, but it need not be. Christians may date simply to get to know one another in a more focused way. In this way, dating can serve as an effective pre-courting option.

I would write more, but I must be off to see my grandparents. Stick with me, and we'll look into this further.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Strange World of Christian Romance

I'm not sure how many non-Christians read this blog, but those who are not familiar with the evangelical subculture of America will find its attempts at romance rather fascinating. In the culture at large, people seem to come together through a variety of means--on-and-off dating, meeting at parties, living together, being part of a group of friends/dating friends, and so on. The evangelical world, or the conservative evangelical world to which I belong, offers two main systems through which romance may be carried out: 1) courtship and 2) dating. I'm going to take a few days and look at the intricacies of each system, giving them an honest and slightly satirical evaluation as I do so.

What is courtship? Ah, the age-old question. Courtship is a relationship conducted with marriage in mind that includes several formalized steps which are designed to allow a couple to consider one another for marriage. It is led by the man and is intended to keep couples accountable, responsible, and centered on whether the other person is marriage-able. The courting couple spends minimal time alone, particularly at night, and strives to get to know one another in group settings. The process is usually kicked off by the man talking to the girl's parents. If given permission, he then "initiates" with the girl, asking her to begin a formal courtship in which both parties will consider the other for marriage. If she says yes, they'll likely start hanging out in groups of their friends, spend some time together alone, and with the help of a book, talk through serious issues of life, marriage, theology, and the like together. If all goes well, the man will ask the woman's father for her hand in marriage. If permission is given, he'll then ask her himself. The whole process is generally fairly quick, especially relative to secular relationships, with some couples completing the process in under six months.

The courtship model is quite old, and is usually associated with the Victorian era. Of course, it's often given the stamp of this period and is called "prudish" and "rigid" by its detractors. Certainly it is an old-fashioned model, with a formalized system of interaction, a deference toward parental opinion, and an emphasis on holiness and decorum. Expectations for the relationship are stated up front, and neither party waits for hidden signals from the other to evaluate the relationship. Courtship is an honest process, with the couple sharing thoughts on life, their future plans, and vision for the family. It often involves friends and uses group settings as one of the primary forums for the couple to interact.

As one can see, courtship in many ways flies in the face of modern relational philosophy. Gone are the ill-defined "steps" of the relationship, the hiding of aspirations and opinions, and the physical intimacy that comes so easily and quickly with romance. In fact, many courting couples make it their business not to touch, and certainly not in romantic ways. Present are the role of the family, the involvement of friends, and close adherence to standards of conduct. Courtship is clearly an interesting system, with its own ideosyncracies, strengths, and challenges. Tomorrow I'll give an honest evaluation of it. Yes, that is a formal initation, or invitation, to you the reader to read on.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

What a Mother Means to a Son: the Orderer

Mothers bring more to their sons than nurture and affection. They also bring order to their son's lives. Think for a moment about everything that Mom teaches her son to do in an orderly fashion. She washes and folds his laundry, helps him brush his teeth, teaches him to use the bathroom, makes him wash his grubby little hands, disciplines him when he does wrong, regulates his tv watching time, directs his daily napping, makes him healthy lunches, supervises his play time with friends, and so much more. Mothers do alot with their children, but it seems to me that their work of ordering their child's lives is as significant as any other aspect.

I suspect that we adults are so used to order that we don't realize how valuable it is for our lives. Sure, we think about it when we do our taxes or hire employees or attempt to organize our files, but otherwise, we give little mind to the extreme ordered-ness of our world. We don't pick up this trait by accident. It's developed within us by our parents, and I would argue, especially by our mothers who taught us the basic DNA of the daily life. A sense of order helps greatly in the adult world. We can observe deadlines, work responsibly, conduct relationships well, and concentrate when we need to do so. Those who were brought up in an ordered fashion are better able to observe boundaries of life. We can understand that friendships are to be invested with responsibility and care, that our bodies must be heeded to function well in life, and that the right way to do things does matter, even with something as basic as toaster installation.

The cultural attempt to deconstruct authority that transpired some three decades past had sweeping effects that we can all observe but affected life in more nuanced and hard-to-spot ways as well. The counter-cultural generation, once free-living hippies, now uptight boomers, raised their children with an increased focus on freedom and a decreased focus on order. Order was decried, and personal liberty exalted. Such a shift brought changes at the worldview level as postmodernism crept into the American consciousness but also at the more basic and intimate level of personal development. Children of my generation, I think, are less aware of the order of the world and are at home in disorder and chaos. Lives without schedules, relationships without bounds, philosophies without coherence--such is the stuff of the disordered life. Where can we trace this, at least in part? To the breakdown of Mom's role as the "orderer." When a generation of women prize autonomy over instruction, and raise their children from the phone, not the home, their children are affected, and order everywhere suffers. How good it is that there are parents out there who will teach their children of order. How gracious of God to give us this guide in the natural plan for the family, and how needed it is in this world so enamored with chaos.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

What a Mother Means to a Son: the Tender One

Fathers must teach their boys much. Their love must be strong, for example, yet not without tenderness. Though they must exhibit this quality, it is from his mother that a boy must learn gentleness and tenderness. Without such lessons, he will not fulfill well his calling to love his future wife. He will grow up and be strong and responsible, but he will lack the gentle love that a woman must have in a relationship. Contrary to what action films and Hollywood stars teach us, men must be both strong and tender, both courageous and compassionate. How fascinating that the relationship between man and woman brings this out in men. Were the planet to consist simply of men, men probably wouldn’t express much gentleness. With women in the mix, though, we can’t run around like the brash and blunt creatures we really are. We have to develop emotionally, learn to care for others, and live tenderly and kindly. How good of our Creator to push us men out of our insensitive state-of-nature.

Yet though fathers must live tenderly, it will be the mother’s primary responsibility to teach her son to be tender. She does so by nurturing and caring for him from his earliest days. Observe women—even girls—around babies and one can see that females are hard-wired to love with tenderness. Men like to man-handle their sons, to throw them in the air and catch them, to wrestle with them. In all this, they show their strength and assure their boys of both their ability to protect and their ability to rough-house without hurt. Mothers don’t quite show tenderness in this way, do they? Mothers show tenderness by cooing at their boys and fussing over them. As the boy grows, it’s Mom, not Dad, that he seeks when he scrapes his knee. Mom has a special gentleness that alone can soothe the wounded. When he’s picked on at school, it’s Mom’s tender questions that result in his confession of hurt. After he wounds his sibling’s feelings, it’s Mom who will do much of the work of restoring. Dad forgives him, and that’s essential, but he needs the touch of redemption in his brokenness. He finds that in Mom’s tender hug and her reassuring words.

One can see the fruit of tender motherhood in young men. Boys who have had gentle and kind mothers are in no way effeminate or soft, but they are often quick to care. They are the type who ask fellow men how they are and who feel comfortable offering solace and comfort to a hurting brother. In addition, they are the type who least often will hurt a girl by way of insensitivity. They have learned from the hand of gentleness to be gentle. So they are. When with their children, they do not simply correct or direct, but do so with compassion and love. All this is due to Mother’s gentleness, her tenderness, qualities which are embedded in her emotional fabric. Providence has made Mom to be tender, to show her son tenderness, and to give God much glory through the simple teaching of an essential trait.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

What a Mother Means to a Son: the Nurturer (2)

It is very difficult for women to end the nourishing relationship. One can see why when one considers the pattern of care for her boy that begins in the womb and continues for almost two decades of her son’s life. There are points, though, at which Mom must accept a change in the special connection she has with her son. It need not disappear, but it will change when the boy begins to grow. He must then spend time with his father to learn what it is to be a man. Beginning in early childhood, he must spend large amounts of time with Dad. Chopping wood, shooting baskets, going to evening church with Dad—all this must take place in order for the boy to inhabit his masculinity. It will be difficult for her to do so, but Mom must let her son go, to an extent, in order for him to become the man His creator would have him to be.

What a beautiful thing it is to see this happen. I love to see Dads spending special time with their boys. I know how special that is to their sons, though their sons do not yet possess the faculties necessary to communicate just how much Dad means to them. Such sons have been well cared for by Mom, well nourished by her, and now it is time to spend some time with Pop. The boys are delighted to do so. I’ll often be shooting baskets at the gym when a father and sons come in. What ensues is generally comical. The boys, usually quite young, throw the ball everywhere but where it should go. They toss it in the air and look stunned when it comes down and bonks them on the head. They watch wide-eyed as Dad dribbles and shoots the ball with ease. They run and jump and fall and tackle things and express a physical joy known only to the young. It’s a beautiful thing to see, a father and his boy spending time together.

I can see in all of this how it could be especially hard at times to be a Mom. Mom spends so much time with her boy, pumps so much into him, and then must watch as he gradually and necessarily pulls away from her. Yet though her boy grows up and spends more time with Dad, more time with friends, more time with balls and books, she must always know that her son’s personality and character are a direct reflection of her care for him. Like the man who begins and develops a great company and then watches as others take it to prominence, so Mother knows as her son grows into a strong man that it is her care that forged his character. It is her gentle spirit that created his sensitivity. It is her love for reading that fuels his own. It is her funny sense of humor that drives his quirkiness. It is her spiritual concern that deeply affected him. The son will not necessarily say or even know this as he grows. But in his words, his deeds, his very life, he speaks to his mother, and tells her that her nurture of him is appreciated. His life communicates what words do not. Mother, your care was honorable. Know that as the years pass and the boys grow, your nurture was not in vain.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

What a Mother Means to Her Son: the Nurturer (1)

Today we pick back up the series on what the family means to a boy by looking at what a mother means to her son. I’ve already explored in brief what a father means to a boy. Now it’s time to look at what a mother means to her son.

A mother is first of all a nurturer for her son. The nurturing relationship expresses itself in two important ways. First, mother and son are connected physically in a way that father and son are not. The woman’s responsibility to intimately care for her son begins immediately after detection of pregnancy. The father cares for his child—of course he does. But he cannot care for his child the way his wife can. He is physically prevented from doing so. His wife, on the other hand, must care for the child by taking care of her body and eating the right foods. Her strength is her infant’s strength, and so she must nurture her baby immediately. Without this care, the child will not flourish and may not live.

Mother continues her special nurturing relationship with her son following birth. She is tasked by creation to feed her son, a task she alone can do. One cannot fail to see the intimacy this connection brings. The mother is literally giving her body to the child. Far from a mere exercise in feeding, though, mother and child form a deep and lasting bond in her provision of food. The child learns to depend on his mother, to seek her for help, to trust in her to care and love him. Clearly, there is much more involved in physical nurturing than mere transmission of nutrients.

As the child grows and switches to less connected forms of physical nourishment, emotional care only intensifies. The boy becomes more complex emotionally. Mother is responsible for managing these emotions on a daily basis and is in fact specially equipped to read and understand her boy. She feeds his body by providing food, his mind by reading to him, his soul by teaching him truth. When Dad must leave for the day, Mom is there to lead her son through it. She and her boy play together, laugh together, cry together. She disciplines him when he lies, hugs him when he falls, hears him when he talks. The nurturing bond forged in the womb and sustained after birth reaches into early childhood, and full-fledged adolescence, and the teen years. Through it all, Mom and son forge a special relationship that is a delicate balance of trust and concern, reward and discipline, instruction and enjoyment. It is a beautiful thing to see, and it stems from God’s design for the family, an institution of intricacy and beauty no human mind could conceive.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Cardinal Virtues of American Regions: the Northeast

Today's blog on the cardinal virtues of American regions concludes with a look at the Northeast. The Northeast values above all honesty. In no other region will you find such a mass of people concerned with expressing themselves truly. Northeasterners are polite, to a point; they are calm, to an extent; and I suppose they are somewhat concerned with coolness, but they are primarily focused on realism. Talk to a Northeasterner, and you'll generally exactly what they think about whatever it is they discuss. There is little camoflaging of opinion in the Northeast. There's such a diversity of peoples and opinions that people have no trouble speaking against the status quo--or perhaps, the status quo(s).

Part of this tendency has to stem from the academic tilt of the Northeast. A preponderance of the nation's finest institutions call the region home. Colleges and universities are notorious for voicing their opinions and for prizing the cutting edge. Because one finds colleges around every bend, an air of forthrightness prevails in the region. The cardinal virtue of the inhabitant: say what you will, and give little mind to what others might say. This tendency has obvious benefits and disadvantages. It's great to know what people think, particularly as one moves through adulthood and discovers the increasing complexity of communication. Put simply, many people don't say what they mean and mean what they say. This happens in the Northeast, but the tendency to speak one's mind makes for a much more candid culture. One knows where one stands with people. There are few games that are played and most social interaction occurs on one plane instead of two (referring to the hidden meanings of many conversations).

However, the candid reflex of the Northeasterner leaves little room for the sanguineness or politeness of other societies. People of this region are more likely to separate into their camps and resolutely stay there, with the possibility of changed mind nil. It's a good thing, often, not simply to stake one's ground but to seek to work to understand others. This isn't overly common in the Northeast. As one from the region, you can trust the honesty of this statement. All that said, the Northeast is an incredible region--did you see that picture above? There's a certain regional confidence that develops in the nest of such beauty. Can you really fault a Northeasterner for that?

Friday, December 16, 2005

Cardinal Virtues of American Regions: the West

Today's post covers the key virtue of the American West: coolness. It's very interesting to observe people from the West, because they often have a care-free spirit about them. One gets the sense from those from the West that life is a little breezier, a little happier, and certainly a little sunnier. It's probably all that sun and warm weather that breeds an ingrained happiness. How can one not hit a little higher level of happiness when it's 80 degrees and gorgeous all the time?

But it's not simply happiness that I noted as the West's key trait, it's coolness. Many of the West Coast strive for an equilibrium that is similar to that of Midwesterners but that is more centered around a cool and fresh appearance. Midwesterners are calm; those of West are calm, but they are not simply even-keeled, they're easy-breezy. Things won't simply stabilize, they'll maximize, and life will be good. In fact, life right now is pretty good, cause my hair looks cool, my clothes are cool, and my demeanor is cool, and I'm not even really trying.

There is much that I enjoy about the cool, cool West. Folks from this region tend to be easygoing, and a bunch of the most fun people I know are from the West. It seems easy to be fun in the West. To think about the difference between fun Northeasterners and fun Californians, the Californians are always going to have less on their mind and be able to strike a relaxed pose midst the tenseness of life (more so than uptight East Coast-ers). There's an enjoyment of living in the West that is refreshing and rejuvenating. On the other hand, those of the West tend to be slightly less able to focus on the nitty-gritty details of everyday existence. Everything will work out in the end, goes the mantra, and certain important matters can be swept under the rug a bit. But even though it may be slightly challenging to pin a Westerner down and get them to focus in a serious way, they're definitely the ones to call for rest and rejuvenation. In the West, it's cool, and that's no joke, dude.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Cardinal Virtues of American Regions: the Midwest

In my quest to offend Americans of every stripe, I'm conducting a study to determine the cardinal virtue, or esteemed trait, that particular regions prize. Today we examine the Midwest to discover its key trait and then to evaluate it.

The cardinal virtue of the Midwest is calmness. In place of heated passion, cutting cynicism, or airy epicureanism, Midwesterners seem to strive for a certain equilibrium about themselves. Everything is fine; nothing is overwhelming; all is going to be well. Conversation with Midwesterners can be an interesting affair. Sometimes it seems like they are engaged in an internal struggle with themselves to remain as calm about everything as possible. It's a sort of Stoic self-competition that usually brings the satisfaction of victory, because few Midwesterners I know emote much. Come thunder-cloud or drought, the Midwesterners are going to be just fine.

We might trace the Midwestern prejudice of calmness to their geographic region. The Midwest is based on agriculture, with huge farms that grow all sorts of things that are then shipped all over the place to be consumed. Farming as an occupation does not breed frenzy as a lifestyle. It's a studied, measured affair where one simply cannot panic on a day-to-day basis. The family depends on the farm, and has all its assets tied up in it (land, equipment, etc), and so must simply stick with the perpetual work of farming. Bad seasons come, good seasons come, and through it all the Midwesterner stands, unbowed by catastrophe, unhurried by promise. We humans are shaped by our work. When your work is based on slow, measured cultivation of the land, you will be measured and calm.

The benefits of this virtue are obvious. Calmness is hugely important in much of life. Perseverance and studied living come in hugely helpful in the adult years, when adversity visits and the trajectory of life resembles a Californian Richter scale. Ask a President, or a quarterbacks coach, or a husband who he wants by his side, and you can guess that he'll desire a person marked by calmness and perseverance. The calm type, however, may also be hard to read, may struggle to express themself as they truly feel and think, and may lack an ability to experience some of the highs (and lows) of life as they were meant to be experienced. Additionally, in conversations, one may find it very difficult to read the plain expression of a Midwesterner. All this said, when I'm off to start my farm, you know who I'm going to call.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Cardinal Virtues of American Regions: the South

Have you ever noticed that there are social traits that are especially prized in certain regions of America? In my post-collegiate travels through a considerable range of America, I've noticed the existence of a "cardinal virtue" in each major region of the country. Today, we look at the South's defining cultural trait--not its only trait, of course, but its defining trait as compared to other geographic areas of the country. We look at the advantages and disadvantages of the South's cardinal virtue.

The people of the South are marked first and foremost by congeniality. They are an unfailingly polite people. I'm not sure how or when this developed historically. Perhaps the preeminence of politeness in the South developed from a more aristocratic culture fashioned by wealthy planters and tradesmen. Because the social structure of the South was for centuries top-down (as were other regions), in which a relatively small group of people dominated communities, the values they transmitted would undoubtedly take root in the regions under their watch. Aristocratic culture of all countries is generally known for its politeness and its esteem of decorum and social order. Such values would have diffused throughout Southern society as the elite of the region modeled and passed down such cultural virtues.

The politeness of the South comes through in numerous ways and is quite pleasant to behold. Men hold doors for ladies, say "yes Ma'am" to the waitress and postal clerk, and watch their language in mixed company. Women ask you how you are, smile at you, and call you "sweetheart" when taking your order. There is little hostile confrontation or public display of anger in the Southern areas I've inhabited. Southerners rarely seem to dress one another down and often bear with those making a fool of themself in a way more direct Northerners (think New Yorkers) often do not. Appearances are maintained, pleasantries are exchanged, and a sense of decorum and order prevails. All this is nice and pleasing.

I do at times miss the openness one finds in the North. Because Southerners are often very polite, a Northerner accustomed to a less filtered brand of culture sometimes struggles to perceive exactly what Southerners think of things. There is a certain amount of information shared among Southerners that does not always easily surface. Thus, the cardinal virtue of this region has, as with every cardinal virtue, its good and bad aspects. I do enjoy the kindness of Southerners and know that if I do leave this region, I'll miss it. Certainly, the waitresses are eminently kinder in the South, and that's no lie, sweetheart.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Great Experiences of Life, Part 3: Really Hard Work

One of the best things that can happen to a person in this life is to have a period of exceptionally difficult labor. In such times, we learn that our limits extend much farther than we thought they did. We are stretched, and our bodies hurt, our minds ache, and our imagination wanders to times of exquisite freedom. I had such a time a few weeks ago, and I can honestly say that I am a bit surprised at what I was able to accomplish. Now, don't read this as a self-congratulatory piece. Such revelations come to us all. We all have challenges, and we all at some point attain success in meeting those challenges. Mine were scholastic, and students out there can resonate with my experience. But in the office, the field, on the ocean waters, in the music hall, we each discover our own particular tasks that seem insurmountable. What a joy it is to have them, for in having them, we can discover newfound strength and ability.

It is just plain good for us humans to have to work really hard. So much of life we spend fighting hard work. In this country, we tie ourselves in knots trying to get out of hard work. We procrastinate, and call in sick, and change jobs, always seeking that golden desk of easy, fulfilling, and quickly concluded labor. So few find this, though, and even if they do, what have they really achieved? Sure, they've found a way to ease, but they stand to miss out on so much that is fulfilling. We can't always work sixty-hour weeks or something like that. But the times that we do work really hard show us another side of ourself, an ability to push past the fears and naysayers that plague us and drag us down to unproductivity. So little would have been accomplished in history without periods of really hard work. What art we would have missed out on, what rich literature, what incredible athletic feats. Really hard work is awesome. It's cleansing, purifying, focusing, and expanding.

In sharp contrast to worldly thinking, Christians see the goodness of God in really hard work. As I'm trying to do in this series, we recognize the goodness of God in all areas of life, not simply those that involve praise songs and devotions. God's goodness is sprinkled all throughout this life in all types of experiences, and it is our duty to recognize this, and then to live out that goodness. We become far more than overtaxed laborers when we do so. We become a very testimony of praise to God, one living, feeling, and breathing hard. God revels in hard work, I think, and so should we.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Great Experiences of Life, Part 2: Having Sin Exposed

Part 2 of this series centers around a second event that we do not often think of in positive terms. Most Christians don't think of others calling us out on our sin as an experience that reverberates with the goodness of God, but it does. Having our flaws brought to light is an overwhelmingly positive experience. A few months ago, I got a splinter in my foot. It was terribly painful. The only thing that matched, and definitely exceeded, the pain of the splinter in my foot was the pain that came in extracting the splinter. I didn't know that knuckles could get that white (from gripping the chair on which I sat). I think of having my sins exposed by others as remarkably similar to the splinter extraction. Is there any worse feeling than having another lay bare your awfulness? That side of ourselves that we hide so well is suddenly thrust into the light as a cave-dweller into the open. The pulse rises, our shoulders stiffen, and our mind races to find its familiar excuses. But the truth is too much for us. Sure, we put up a fight, sometimes a strident one, but the Spirit has His way in us, and our defenses eventually fall to the siege of truth. Perhaps that happens by ourselves, hours later, when the fuming has stopped and the excuses go hoarse. Whether instantaneous or tardy, conviction definitely comes. It is a fearful thing, but oh how good for us.

I recently had two key sins pointed out in my life. I went through a form of the defensive process described above but was fairly floored by how well my sin was diagnosed. Sometimes, people sniff out your sin. Other times, they see right through you. In this latest case, you could see my spiritual bones. It wasn't a pretty sight. I felt wretched and gradually experienced anew the Psalm 51 feeling of utter shame and absolute regret. Those who have been convicted of sin know of that which I speak. We do not fall as David did to the dust, but we can taste a bit of it in our mouths. After a season of pretending and conveniently not examining our souls, we re-realize that God has seen it all. Through every foolish choice, through every self-focused thought, through every premeditated desire, He's calmly, clearly, exhaustively seen it all. We haven't hidden anything. We haven't gotten away with anything. We are as bare as Adam and Eve were in the garden, and we're the only ones who don't know it. How humiliating this is, but how wonderful. We had locked ourselves away from mercy, and now we can find it.

It is truly great (in the sense of a powerfully impacting experience) to have our sins exposed. It is amazing to think that others can know us, however imperfectly and perhaps only briefly, as we truly are. Good as we are at pretending and covering up, we are often found out. This is the stuff of humility. It is also the stuff of grace. Once running from God, we find our course reversed after exposure. Now, we run to God, and cry out for mercy. Incredibly, we always find it. It is always there. The stores are never empty. They always brim. And so far from being closed off when we sin, they are opened. God promises the sinful confessor that he will find mercy. Unlike our earthly confessions as children, which brought necessary and immediate punishment, the spiritual confession to God by the Christian meets no retribution. Christ drank all that fury on the cross. We are free, and we are forgiven. Truly, this is a beautiful mystery.

May we all know the power of exposed sin, and be open to this necessary practice. May we see God's goodness in it, and see after it has come that the confessor's path never leads to darkness and pain, but to the way of life and joy unending. May we find that path each day.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Great Experiences of Life, Part 1: Relational Heartbreak

Christians do not simply see God's goodness in Sunday School lessons and touching devotional lessons. We see God's goodness in the collective experiences that together comprise our lives. God is not simply good when we feel good about what's happening to us. We see goodness in times when we feel quite the opposite. Unlike the perpetually optimistic brand of Christianity some espouse, biblical Christianity reads into all of life the sovereign working of God to shape His people and reflect His glory. This fascinating process involves hardship, heartbreak, exultant joy, static numbness, and all else that comes upon us as shades of a prism. In this new series, I'm going to explore a number of these experiences and talk first about how we go through them and then how they represent, regardless of their first appearance, the goodness of God woven into our lives. This discussion will obviously center in my personal life (with little detail) but will share much, I'm guessing, with the experiences of many.

First up is relational heartbreak. We've all had it. Why do I call it one of the "great experiences" of life? Because it is cathartic. Relationships have a funny way of involving all our faculties. First, we are charged through with great emotion, seemingly unstoppable, that steals our sleep and invades our concentration. Second, we use rationality to consider our intended flame. What kind of thinker is she? Does she like sports? Is she coldly calculating or emotionally driven? Third, we taste something of the spiritual as we ponder the giving away of ourselves to another. What sort of union must this be? Surely it goes far beyond a shared house and set of goals. There is a deeper reality to relationships than just the emotional, and just the rational. Clearly, they are complex undertakings.

How impactful, then, is heartbreak. All three of the above components come crashing down, mixing together to form one big glob of hurt. Emotionally, we are seared as with fire. Hours and hours invested in the other person. Those moments we allowed ourselves to dream freely of the future, if only for a few, are now dashed, necessarily shoved away from our mind before it has time to know what has happened. And our rational selves. How we strive to see the flaw we missed, the hangup we excused away, the divergent pathway we swore was our own. Spiritually, the connection is broken. There will be no union with this one, no discovering of the mystery of two as one. No, we are emotionally drained, rationally frustrated, and alone in the kitchen, or the dining room, or the gathering. Alone with our thoughts, no matter how much activity swirls around us. Those who are just a phone call away are somehow much more distant, as far from us as the movie actors we see on screen. They are part of our world, yes, but they are not. We cannot truly know them, nor they us. Heartbreak is a powerful thing.

There is such tremendous good in heartbreak. God's goodness is all through it. In it, we find our inadequacy, that deep insufficiency we must dig to discover. We pad our fragile hearts with accomplishments and accolades and compliments and self-manufactured statistics and end up like the hypothermic swimmer with ten layers on: well padded but fundamentally weak. Heartbreak takes us by the neck and shows us hard-core that we are so insufficient, that we are not really the all-star we think we are, that we're just foolish people doing the best we can in a foolish world. We don't have it all figured out. We can't play it all right. We're just as confused as the next guy. In the face of heartbreak, there's no pretending. In fact, there's no ability to pretend.

Beyond this, though, well beyond this, is the overpowering grace of God that comes clear in our sight in the midst of heartbreak. So we tried. We gave it our best shot. It's all a mess now. Well, you know what? That's okay. God prevails. God exists. God is here. God is in this. We're in the dust, Job-like, with only our hurt for company, and then we look up, and we see very Sovereignty Himself. He's near us, with us, and He has come to bring solace and healing. What sweetness it is to experience this in a hard time. Heartbreak magnifies the goodness of God, clears it all away, and leaves us alone with God. It is cathartic, involving all of our being, and it sweeps over us, leaving us changed for the duration. There is goodness in it, directing, shaping, molding goodness that reforms us by the same hands that bring us pain. Heartbreak is a great life experience.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Music That Engages Culture: Switchfoot

The science of Christian cultural engagement is a delicate one. This is true particularly in the realm of music, that art form so dominant in American culture. Traditionally, engagement with the secular sphere tends to center in one of two approaches. First, we have the preaching mindset, in which artists see their responsibility to preach the gospel and susequently make music that expounds the gospel. This type of music can be extremely useful, but typically reaches a certain type of person, and that type is usually not a mass audience but a particularly sensitive non-Christian. For someone who wants to think through the deep spiritual truth of the gospel, preaching music can be great. For your average non-Christian, however, interest in doctrinal music will quickly wane. Thus, though the product is God-honoring and full of doctrinal goodness, the results (cultural engagement) may fall short of the intent.

The second mindset could be called relating. Artists who make this type of music focus not on mere proclamation of truth but on speaking about topics and experiences that will connect with a non-Christian. Armed with a desire to reach those outside the church, the artist typically moves away from clear gospel sharing and towards recounting of events and perspectives that the non-Christian would share. This type of music can obviously do much to bridge gaps, but it also sacrifices the distinctive testimony that marks a Christian and his product. It’s great to connect with those outside the faith, but there needs to be something to which you are connecting them. Thus, though the product has a God-honoring focus (to reach the lost), the results may fall short of the intent.

One group of Christians that avoids both extremes and makes quality, God-testifying music is Switchfoot. Even if you rarely take the pulse of the culture, you might have heard of the California rock band who sold two million copies of their most recent album, The Beautiful Letdown. They are unabashedly Christian in their music, and yet they do so without a “preachy” tone. With poetic lyrics, the band explores spiritual truths through language accessible to all. For example, on their latest cd, Nothing is Sound, Switchfoot sings of the way the creation witness to the existence of God on the song “Stars.” “When I look at the stars, when I look at the stars…I feel more like myself.” In other words, in contemplating God’s character, the group discovers their own. On their previous album, the group sang “We were meant to live for so much more,” a statement that clearly points to the inadequacy of this world. Of course, these statements are also open enough to connect with a non-Christian. Add to all this totally rocking music, and you have a strong recipe for cultural engagement, and beyond that, transformation. Check out Switchfoot here and listen to their awesome new song, “Stars.” They are well worth supporting.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Back at it: Some Good Music

WHEW. I'm out of the cave, friends. Before I restart the cultural engagement effort, let me just say thanks for sticking with me. Here are the totals from the last three weeks:

Read: over 1000 pages
Typed: over 80 pages
Took: four finals
Had: minimal exercise, bloodshot eyes, and alot of boiled custard (it's incredible, like drinking vanilla ice cream)

The Lord was in it. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers in a busy time.

And now, I want to do a brief series on some artists I think are worth checking out. You may never have heard of them, but trust me when I say that they are definitely worth checking out. First up today is Andrew Peterson. Andrew Peterson is a singer/songwriter hailing from the Caedmon's Call camp. For those who have no idea what Caedmon's Call is, it's a really, really good Christian folk/pop group that blends rich theology, poetry, and stirring, memorable harmonies to create really good music. Andrew Peterson was in Caedmon's but left to pursue a solo career. He was one of the group's best songwriters (they had a number) and has crafted a number of gems in the albums he's released since his time with Caedmon's. On his latest cd, "The Far Country," Peterson explores the theme of heaven, a topic that Christians often think about but generally on a fairly shallow level. The key to the album is the rich lyrical depth. Peterson has an interesting voice, not unpleasant, but not beautiful. It does not distract, but rather clears the way for one to enjoy his clever and deep lyrics.

Peterson is part of a wave of young writers in Christian music who do not allow simple cliches to suffice for lyrical output. Instead, he weaves metaphors and paints pictures of life scenes to tell his story. He less often preaches a point and more often sketches it out through poignant details. He represents the direction I wish Christian music would go. Because he asks hard questions and refuses to give pat answers, I would encourage people to support him and others like him--Derek Webb, Caedmon's Call, Fernando Ortega. The market will respond to us as we support quality and eschew insufficiency. Doubt me on that? Look at a little movie trilogy called Lord of the Rings.

Check out Andrew Peterson here and order his music. He's well worth supporting.