Monday, April 24, 2006

Faith Helps: Friendship

One of the most profound helps to one's faith is the institution of friendship. Friendship could be considered one of the best gifts of personhood, one of the distinguishing marks of humanity, and one of the surest means to individual change. The evangelical who strives to live the Christian life without friends will find themselves lacking much good they would otherwise possess. Friendship is underrated.

This might seem a bit simple, I suppose. The important stuff is Bible reading and praying and all that. Friendships are incidental. They make for nice photographs and letters and that sort of thing, but they're of little practical good spiritually. This harmless little thought is actually quite damaging, and has wreaked much havoc on a generation of individualist Christians. One need only look at Christ and His apostles to see a model of Christian friendship. Sure, there was more going on than mere friendship in this partnership. But the joy of being friends was a key part of Christ's life, and the life of His apostles. Witness His distress when, in Gethsemane, He found His friends asleep when He had asked that they stay awake on His behalf. Observe the pathos in His conversation with Peter in which He restored Peter to a life of witness. Consider the fact that John referred to himself as the disciple Jesus loved, and you see clearly that Jesus was a man who knew the importance and value of friendships. The strongest man who ever lived, with the strongest faith ever possessed, nonetheless surrounded himself with a band of friends. We would do well to follow His example.

I know the value of this advice, having practiced it when in a very challenging collegiate environment. I lived with a group of young men who challenged me, encouraged me, and shared life with me over the course of several years. Much good came from our friendship, including association that stretches into the current day. Tomorrow, I'll give specific ways this band of friends has helped me.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Faith Helps: Discipline, Part 2

Against the extreme attention given to feelings in the popular culture, evangelicals, ourselves a people who value feelings, recognize that we must commit ourselves to things--beliefs, people, most importantly, God. Yes, we want to feel the truth. But we understand that this is not always possible. Sometimes you don't feel like reading the Bible. Sometimes you don't feel like going to church. Sometimes you don't feel like not gossipping. Sometimes you don't feel like not lusting. In all of these instances, your commitment to God must override your feelings. Otherwise, you will shipwreck your faith. In the debate over the role of feelings, the outcome is weighted, and determined heavily by your answer to this question.

Very often, I find that discipline carries me through the struggles of life. I love feelings as much as anyone, being a passionate person, but when I am tired and lazy, I need the strong voice of discipline to rouse me from sleep and get me into the Word. When I feel sin tug at my sleeve, I need something beside emotional excitement to shrug sin off. Discipline, considered the enemy by the popular culture, is actually one's closest friend in the Christian worldview. The Christian faith that lacks it misses out on its greatest help. Trying to be a steady disciple of Christ without any effort to be so damns one to a cycle of perpetual frustration. Up, down, down some more, then out of it for a bit, then down again. This is okay as a single person, but it's very tough on a family, and this attitude does not help one to instruct one's charges in the faith. Think of the picture of Christianity they acquire. They learn to see the faith as a constant battle one can never really win, albeit a battle punctuated by great highs and great lows. No wonder that people turn from the faith to relationships, drugs, and the like--they seek constancy anywhere they can find it. Of course, they also rebel against a harsh discipline, so that must be guarded against. You can do it--Christ certainly did, and Paul had a very strong walk with Christ that was hedged by discipline. He "beat his body" to discipline it for the purpose of godliness. That may seem a bit much. It will not, however, when the ship nears danger, and the rocks show themselves, and all around you, people crash for lack of preparation.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Faith Helps: Discipline, Part 1

One of the least-prized virtues of this era is that of discipline. Discipline, you see, requires earnestness, and earnestness is nowhere popular among the younger generation. For those of my age, life is all about throwing off restrictions and requirements, rules and regulations. The good life is totally uninhibited, with only one's whim to guide one through the twists of life. Principles--deeply held beliefs--are archaic holdovers from distant generations, when men plowed ground in overalls and women wore bonnets all the time. Today, the whim rules, and as a result, discipline suffers.

This mindset has crept into the church. It has also received support from those who decry any sort of structure to the Christian faith, seeing it only as an experiential commitment to God and the Word. When one feels like it, one worships God. When one doesn't, well, that's tough. Instead of being true to the Bible, this mindset is true only to its desires. Discipline isn't needed--it's feeling that's needed, and one can't manipulate feeling. It's pure, and comes, like the wind, whenever it wants. This mindset drives much of the Christianity we see among the younger crowd today. The movement known as the "Emerging Church" certainly emphasizes the priority of feelings, and your average college fellowship likely has a healthy dose of feelings-driven Christianity in it. These students will often have deep (and commendable) passion for God, but without the means to express that commitment consistently and coherently before their unbelieving friends. The result? Alot of passion, and quick decisions, and excited mindsets, and deep lows, some of which lay hold of younger believers. These are high stakes we're talking about here. We're not simply discussing a matter of preference--do you like regularly taking in the Word or not? Do you like praying daily or not? Do you like changing your life or would you rather not?

We are talking about the substance of faith in these matters. At your core level, you are what you do. So many in this age say they are of Christ, but they struggle mightily to live this out. And then, many drift away from an initial commitment when it is not met with passionate action. This sad situation plays out everywhere among my generation. Coming up--a few suggestions to tackle this problem, provided I'm disciplined enough to write this blog.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Faith Helps: Reading Short Passages

I talked yesterday about how it is a big help to one's faith to read large chunks of scripture. Today I'm suggesting the exact opposite. Isn't that fun? I think it is. You get a blog, and you can be completely capricious, just like me.

Actually, these ideas aren't in contradistinction to one another. They complement one another. It is a good idea to get a broad view of one's object of study, and it is a good idea to acquire intricate knowledge of it. It will greatly help a surgeon to have a general idea of the body's workings, and it will greatly help them to know the minute details of kidneys and lungs and other such things. The surgeon who has a general knowledge of things will be of little help to his patients. "Well, son, I'm quite sure that the body works as a homogeneous unit, and I know that the leg bone is connected to the foot bone" and so on will do little to instill courage in a patient's heart. On the other hand, it will be of little good to a patient to see a doctor for an arm problem when he knows only about the foot. In the same way, a Christian needs broad knowledge of the Bible to fit its parts in the correct places, to understand the broad theology of the Bible, and the way that the Testaments work together. But he also needs localized knowledge of certain passages in order to parse the meaning of individual Scriptures. Both work hand in hand.

In your devotional life, then, devote some months to the reading of large chunks of Scripture and others to the reading of short passages. In this way you will help your faith as you come to understand the Bible as one fluid story and also as a collection of all kinds of precious and detailed doctrines. Practically, large-scale knowledge will come to your mind throughout the day and remind you of the general narrative of Scripture. This will enliven, challenge, and help you fit your story into Scripture's. Small-scale knowledge will come to your mind throughout the day and remind you of precise truths that fit into your day. In your walk, then, Christian, mix in Scripture reading of both types, and watch your faith expand, fill out, and grow.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Faith Helps: Reading Lots of Scripture

Time for a new series. This one is on ways we Christians can help our faith. As subjects of God who were born again by the Spirit's regenerating work, we understand that we are not fundamentally responsible for our faith. And yet we simultaneously affirm that we do not wake up with a morning to-do list from God that we automatically perform. God has ordained all things and yet He uses our agency, our will, to accomplish His purposes. In our faith, then, we are not to sit back and expect God to grow us. We are to actively pursue growth. This series deals with how we can do just that.

The first thing I have found to be of help in my own walk with Christ is that of "chunk-reading." That is, reading large chunks of Scripture. It may seem strange at first glance. Aren't our devotions supposed to be intensive studies of short passages? Doesn't this help us meditate and learn? Well, yes, it does, and I'll deal with this method on another day. But I have found "chunk-reading" to be of great help to me in my faith. At different times, I commit to reading about five full chapters in my morning devotions. When I do so, I read quickly, trying to get a sense of the plot and message as I go. I don't stop and think hard about verses, because I am trying to get a feel for the larger story of the passage. When I do this for a long time, I find that I have an understanding not simply of a few verses, but of whole chapters, groups of chapters, and books. This type of macro-knowledge is of huge help in understanding the message of Scripture. Suddenly one has a sense of the flow of Scripture, the "buildup" that transpires from Genesis to Revelation, and not only a mental storehouse of their ten favorite verses and Ephesians 1:1-14. Over time, one supplements the chunks with study of smaller passages. This creates a well-rounded grasp of Scripture that is invaluable. I might say that it is also fun. It is enjoyable to read alot of Scripture, and begin to understand it as a whole. Wasn't it fun to read a novel and not simply study a chapter? Or to learn the whole times table and not simply the 1's? We can do the same with our Bible knowledge, and create a rich storehouse for ourselves. There- an item for your to-do list.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Unapologetic Manhood: Guy Movies

One of the best marks of being a man is liking movies tailored to my gender. What a beautiful thing it is that there are movies out there that celebrate heroism, courage, and justice. I've recently become more acquainted with the cinematic genre known as "chick-flicks," which has only reinforced my standing love for guy movies. Now, that's not to say I don't think there are some good aspects of the chick-flick (like...ummm...the credits?). Seriously, if I thought hard, I could come up with something (sensitivity, sweetness, romance, etc). But while I can physically watch a chick-flick and in some distant, abstract way appreciate it, I can certainly go for a guy movie like Troy, Braveheart, Gladiator, Star Wars III, Master & Commander, and many others. These movies speak to my soul--and besides that, once you watch them, you can quote them to your guy friends.

I am unapologetic about my love for guy movies. There is something in the soul of a man that wants to lead the charge, slay the evil foe, and win the beautiful girl. We men of modernity are all very accustomed to our desks and computer screens, but don't get us wrong: we wouldn't mind a swordfight for the right cause and our fair maiden's heart. We may look okay in our tie and nice pants, but we all pine a bit for armor, a big ole shield, and a sword that would be better suited for cutting boulders than spears. We're made, after all, to be protectors. As modern men, this part is often suppressed. Our outlet? Cool movies. For this, we're unapologetic. Of course, we'll watch a chick-flick or two. But girls, if you look over and see us looking in the distance--you know where we are.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Unapologetic Manhood: Not Decorating

Much has been made of the "metrosexual" male in recent popular culture publications. Such a man, while heterosexual and unabashedly so, gives much attention to traditionally feminine categories such as dress, appearance, and decoration. Now, I give some attention to the first two (sometimes too much), but I can happily say that I rank terribly in the final category.

I have searched far and wide within my DNA and found no trace of a decorating gene. It simply does not exist. I have no propensity for adornment of my living space. In fact, I have the opposite tendency. I desire to not adorn. Want proof? In my bedroom, the only space I control, I have a total of three decorative artifacts. All were sent to me by my wonderful mother, she of the would-be domesticizing department, and all are calendars. Sadly, all are from 2005. One is a small hand-size monthly calendar from my hometown savings bank. One is a "Maine Snapshots" calendar, set to some month that has a particularly beautiful shot of a Maine lake. The last is a calendar from my beloved alma mater, Bowdoin College. It reminds me to pray for my school. So this is the full substance, the glorious dressing, of my abode. I'm actually surprised that I took the time to put these particular calendars up.

What motivates my failure to decorate? Perhaps I can explain by looking briefly into the male psyche as personified by me. In terms of living space, I have no gene for form. Instead, I am focused totally on function. At this point in my life, namely, singleness, all that matters in terms of living space is that it enables me to do what I need to do: find clothes, store tax documents, and attain some measure of rest each night. This is all that matters to me right now. There is no one to impress, few guests to entertain, and my quality of life improves very, very little if I put up a picture of some scene or person. There is so much else that actually matters, that actually needs attention, that the coverings of my wall matter not at all. For all this, I am unapologetic. I am a man. Men do not decorate. In their living space, men do things. They don't gaze at things or coo or cluck. Of course, many of us await a civilizing influence, a decorating impulse. We're happy to have it. But we don't need it. We're spartan, we're focused on functionality, and we're unapologetic. That, friends, is beautiful. Do let me know if you have old calendars that might make good wall coverings, though.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Unapologetic Manhood: Not Cooking, Pt 2

Yesterday I began a series called "Unapologetic Manhood," in which I explore a few tenets of manhood that I embrace and do not apologize for. Today I pick up where I left off yesterday. I'm discussing my aversion to cooking, a tendency I trace to my being a man.

Now, this series is partly in jest. Of course. All you cultured, masculine, high-taste chefs can simmer down (pun!). I have no contention with you. There is no bone to pick here, unless it's from a barbeque wing, in which case I will happily pick it. That aside, I understand that many men do cook and in fact like to cook. I have no problem with that. I do not think, however, that as a man it is essential that I learn to cook or enjoy cooking. I do think that it is important that a woman cook. I think that's part of her role. A man, though, can or can not enjoy cooking. So I see an essential distinction between the sexes. Just as I don't think it important that I keep up a house, decorate, and other such things, I don't think it's important that I cook. I wasn't made to do it. I was made to eat it. I was made to be the provider, to slaughter the beast, bring it home, and wait while my lady friend cooked it up. She wasn't made to be the provider, and I wasn't made to be the cook. It's pretty simple. Of course, nowadays all the meat is pre-slaughtered and all that, leaving me in a very passive position, but that's okay. I'll still sit and wait for it to be cooked up, when the time strikes.

I'm unapologetic about this. I don't want to cook. It's not my role. So I have subscribed in my singleness to a plan of "food preparation." I don't cook, but I do "prepare food," meaning, primarily, that I take it out of packaging, turn the oven dial to some temperature between 350 and 450, and come back twenty minutes later to consume the heated product. This is not my only means of food preparation, however. Do not think I am a one-trick dog. I am a two-trick dog. I also dump salsa and cheese on chips, nuke them, and eat them. So I have an extensive repertoire that I'm satisfied with. The way I look at it, I'm not eating Ramen, so I must be doing something right. After all, this is manhood. There's no apologizing for that. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a pizza to cook.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Unapologetic Manhood: Part 1--Not Cooking

Hello, consumed readers. I have long abandoned you, and I am penitent. I have been lost in the pleasurable waters of spring break and have not been able to post. I have emerged, however, and now I am ready and excited about the newest series to occupy four minutes of your daily reading time: "Unapologetic Manhood." In this series, I'm going to give a few aspects of manhood that I embrace and feel no need to apologize for. It's a slightly tongue-in-cheek series, but it is nonetheless serious. Hope you enjoy it.

Much is made of the propensity of many twentysomething American males to avoid cooking at any cost. Being in this category, I can say that much is made of the avoidance of cooking, and much of it is made in my direction. From a variety of females, some of whom occupy special places in my heart, I've received exhortation to cook. One female, particularly close to my heart (hi mom), has carried on a six-year campaign to get me to cook. Sadly, to this day, the campaign has fared worse than a New York Yankees fan civilizing program. I don't have exact statistics at this point (consumed interns are working diligently, I assure you), but I'm thinking that I have cooked less than five meals in this period. Such numbers rival the productivity of Russian officials and their five-year plans. I must say, though, as characters they are entirely less sympathetic than my wonderful mother.

Now, by "cook" I'm meaning full-scale preparation, with recipe consultation, ingredient purchasing, meal preparation, and consumption of said meal. Five meals. This figure, so humble, speaks to two things: 1) My poor mother's extreme frustration, and 2) My studied, steadfast resistance to any sort of cooking. In fact, now that I think about, I'm almost impressed with myself. Five meals! Any guesses on how many chicken breasts, how many fresh veggies, how many fillets were passed over in this period? Any guesses on how many frozen pizzas were purchased, how many chicken nuggets felt the oppressive heat of a creaky 400 degree oven? These are the statistics of a stubborn man. Nay. This is too weak. These are the statistics of an unapologetic manhood. Tomorrow, we'll look more at what fuels the extreme stubbornness of the twentysomething male.