Archive for June, 2012

No pain, no gain

Sometimes we don’t think at all, and sometimes we think too much.  Sometimes we over-spiritualize things, and sometimes we don’t take the fact that everything is God-related into account.  Sometimes we feel like we’re stuck in an anecdote where one person of two is telling the truth and the other is lying, and we have no idea which is which…

So, self-sacrifice is a good thing.  Maybe almost the best thing, after all, Christ sacrificed himself for us, and we are supposed to identify with Him.  As a matter of fact, if we have a choice to do something we want to do, and something someone else wants us to do, we should always choose the latter, because that is what God wants us to do, and we musn’t be selfish or egotistical.

And we can feel noble when we sacrifice, whereas we only feel guilty if we don’t sacrifice.

Actually, God never told us to be noble.  Nowhere will you find that concept in the Bible.  As a matter of fact, He never even told us to be the bigger man.  He did tells us to forgive, and to love, and not to insist on our own.  And somehow we inferred nobility from that.

Nobility is pride, when you come down to it.  I only realized this after C. S. Lewis did, of course.  He shows how the devil tempts the Eve-type character on Venus to sin by appealing to her nobility and calling for self-sacrifice.  What?!  The devil is tempting someone into self-sacrifice?  (And no, it isn’t a blood offering.)  You could read the story (Perelandra) to get all the details, but it’s related to sacrificing her own holiness for the supposed benefit of her husband.

I think this is one of the hardest and most confusing aspects of the New Testament.  I say the New Testament, because although stories in the Old Testament may show some self-sacrifice, only the New Testament talks about it.  We automatically assume that self-sacrifice is good, and that if we are trying to determine God’s will and one way requires self-sacrifice, that’s probably God’s will.

And we’re right back to humanly over-simplifying and trying to make rules to make things easier for ourselves.

Self-sacrifice is sometimes more prideful than being selfish.  It’s sometimes more selfish than being selfish, if you can get your mind around that one.  Every story has two sides; my father-in-law never accepted any sacrifices his wife made- insisted that she eat the last piece of fruit, etc.  From his side, he was sacrificing so his wife could have something nice.  But from her side, he was refusing her the joy of being able to give him something- even the blessing of sacrifice, if you really want to spiritualize it.

Not that I’m going to talk about my poor beleaguered in-laws again.  Well, actually, I am, but in a slightly different setting; this just struck as one example of a way sacrifice could go astray.  Another example might be the man who “sacrifices” his free time to work overtime to provide more for his family, and who justifiably feels he’s doing a good thing- but his family only wants him to spend time with them at home.  Or the person who sacrifices due to a subconscious desire to manipulate certain rewards or benefits.

Or the person who sacrifices health, work, friends, family life, etc to live with her elderly in-laws, because it’s a good thing to do, but her heart was never in it.  Right, that would be me.  And I totally flunked that test- again. 

I really did assume that refusing this sacrifice would be wrong.  A sin.  And that sacrificing would be right, and would result in certain ways.  Maybe not physical blessings, but certainly a more exalted spiritual state.  And I really did read way too many Grace Livingston Hill books when I was developing.  (And I think some Louisa May Alcott got in there too.)

Well, I was wrong.  In the short term view, at least, my “sacrifice” did not exalt anyone, and made pretty much everyone miserable.  But I did feel very noble.  And even if I wasn’t exactly serving with my heart, I did sincerely believe that I should sacrifice, that it was the Christian thing to do. 

In the long term view, I do believe that God does not drop stitches; that there are regardless lessons learned, which is part of what we’re here for.  And that though we often may not see the point, there is one, and God always sees it.

But how did I so deceive myself?  What contortions of thought brought me to a sincerely misguided sacrifice that was perhaps not ultimately, but immediately pointless?

I guess we’re right back to those nice, convenient little rules we make to make our lives “easier”.  Only they don’t; they make our lives more complicated, and less faithful.  Living the faithful life seems so very difficult, and seems to require so much faith- it really does seem easier to follow “spiritual” logic.  1. My husband felt we should do this, so I was submissive (good, right?) 2 We’re supposed to take care of our parents, and not abandon them like the Pharisees (and these are my husband’s parents, not mine, so double good- me and Ruth, saints together) 3.  We’re supposed to be humble and not insist on our own happiness (and I was miserable, so that had to be good). 

Well, it may be logic- of a kind.  (And empirical reasoning is not really the best kind of logic.)  But it is not “spiritual”.  (We do misuse that word so.)  In fact, I was going right back to rules and forms and religion.  And while my intentions were for the most part good, the results showed the faultiness of my reasoning.

Or maybe not.  I am perhaps being a little over-harsh here, because it is a very difficult situation, and there are no easy answers or solutions- and we truly don’t know what God intends in having allowed it.  But I do believe that this simply underlines my growing conviction that we are too prone to have our list of answers and whatever they call them in the army, those responses to crisis situations.  I do not think that there can be one answer to a particular problem, even for Christians.

And that means that self-sacrifice is not always the better path.  Sometimes there’s just too much self in self-sacrifice.  Not that it’s unnecessary, or wrong.  No; there is a very real place for self-sacrifice, and without it we could not live at all (just ask the woman who gets up three times in the night to nurse a baby.)  But just because it’s self-sacrifice doesn’t mean it’s right- unthinking self-sacrifice is no more reasonable or virtuous than any other unthinking act. 

It all comes back to that little point about waiting on God and abiding in Him.  Not attempting to manipulate things based on our own efforts and works, but listening to God’s voice, and doing what He calls us to.

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Excuse My Blush

This is a real can of worms.  And it doesn’t matter who opens it, he (or more likely she) will end up with mud on his (her, obviously) face.  That fascinating little topic of modesty…

Recently reading a blog on the issue, I disagreed with both the author and the readers’ comments.  Yes, I do believe that it is good to be modest.  Yes, I agree that certain quantities of skin may be a problem.  Yes, I agree that we certainly can cause a weaker brother stumble with some modes of dress.

But I’m afraid it’s a much wider subject that any of us wants to admit.  And the “rules” aren’t necessarily what we think they are- because there aren’t any. 

We do so love our rules!  They give us such feelings of satisfaction as we check off our good deeds for the day.  And how nice, we never have to use our brains- just follow the guidelines and be godly.

Of course, they do tend to differ widely; jeans are inappropriate in certain institutions, though jean jumpers are not only acceptable, but even laudable.  (Must be the ugly factor, a sort of modern self-flagellation.)  One person commented that their religious organization required that shorts be no shorter than a the width of a dollar bill above the knee; presumably, this is the holy measurement- God-ordained.  Many people would agree that long hair is holy, though whether one wears it down (so everyone can see it’s long) or pinned up (so only your husband can see your split ends) is a matter of debate.

Yes, I know I’m being flippant.  And I don’t really belittle a woman’s sincere desire to dress in a way pleasing to God.  But I thoroughly deplore our human insistance on making rules.  These rules so often become a matter of self-righteousness, of judgement, of dissention, of organization social classes, and of turning off our minds and hearts.

Rules are one of those ways we attempt to control our surroundings.  Fearful of the sheer freedom of hundreds and thousands of people- different people, different from us, we create rules that will protect our fragile sense of self and dignity.  We try to control the sheer chaos we imagine resulting from the freedom that God so unthinkingly gave us- well, maybe not us, but those others, the ones who are different.

It’s wrong.  Not modesty, no.  God did speak to us about modesty, though I don’t recall any commandments referring to dollar bills- or even shorts, Bermuda or otherwise. We are wrong when we try to take control.  That is precisely what Adam and Eve were doing; instead of being content to live on faith and trust, they wanted to be like gods and control their own destiny.  (Incidentally, I wonder what length robe God made for Eve in the garden, one does hope it covered her knees…)  Of course, living on faith and trust requires a tremendous amount of effort, and even thought, and some sensitivity- and we do know that while Adam and Eve, who obviously were not up to the challenge, may have used 100% of their brain capacity, we descendants use only 7-10%.  Perhaps we have an excuse.  Then again, we descendants do have that advantage of being born again, and Spirit-filled; we can’t cry too loudly.

It may be that we too often play the culture card, but it is still true.  What is good for the goose may not be good for the gander if the gander happens to live several thousand miles away.  Something as fundamental as climate can change realistic expectations of dress;  I really desperately would have loved to be able to wear slacks to church when I was travelling 15 km by bus before sunrise in -40 weather, if only they weren’t a sin.  (Which is really funny, because as I’ve pointed out to my mother-in-law in my more persnickety moments, Jesus wore a dress, and there weren’t any slacks in Biblical times anyway.)  Similarly, while hot pants and halter tops may be stretching the point, a hot climate is not the place to be worrying about open shoulders.  On the other hand, the uniform that many of the more conservative Christians consider appropriate in America would look downright lewd on the streets of Saudi Arabia.  And has anyone considered how difficult it might be for tribal women in the jungles of Africa to grow their hair long?

I am no better than anyone else, and there have certainly been people I have criticized in my heart for their appearance (though in my case, it’s been the jean jumper with sneakers type as often as the midriff-bearing, skinny jeans with stilletoes type.)  But the more I’ve been judged unfairly- not only for my appearance, which is rarely hair-raising- the more I realize how frightening it is to make easy judgements.  Especially about something so easily misunderstood and misinterpreted as appearance.  Americans may think that many of my Russian students look like street-walkers, but my students think Americans look like slobs.  (Um, I’ll just take this opportunity to mention that the reason I pass as Russian if I don’t open my mouth is because I dress like my colleagues- NOT my students.)

Another case is a girl who goes to our church and sings in the choir.  Apparently, she is concerned that her ankle-length white dress with lace trim may be too transparent, so she wears another white skirt underneath, and a white blouse partially buttoned over the dress.  Considering the current temperatures and humidity, I think this a very laudable effort.  The fact that she looks half-undressed, like one of the girls dancing around in petticoats in an MGM musical, or several less savoury comparisons I can think of, has probably never occurred to her.  And it may not have occurred to anyone else but me, because I doubt there are many people here who watch MGM musicals or have a tendency to think in terms of gypsies and Dumas adventures.  (She’s a very nice girl, and I really have no issue with her dress, especially knowing that she does not have much money to work with; I just thought it was interesting that covering as much skin as she could actually had the opposite effect to what she intended.)

The sad thing is, in all the kafuffle over rules and rulers, the heart issue is lost.  I have told my mother-in-law so many times (in my imagination, that is) that the whole point of the verse about gold and silver and broiding of the hair isn’t in the gold and silver (or my lipstick, which was not mentioned once in the Bible).  The point is that our emphasis is supposed to be on our hearts, not our appearance.  And when we’re in the midst of finding dollar bills to measure our hemlines, and debating whether or not open-toed shoes are more provocative than sandals, we are putting the emphasis precisely on our appearance.  We would seem to be more concerned with looking Christian, than being Christian. 

I truly believe that if we worried more about our hearts, our dress would take care of itself.  The closer we are walking with God, the purer our motives will be, the less easily influenced we will be, and the less time we will have to primp and preen.  Okay, so I acknowledge that none of us are that far advanced- and nor will be, if we continue to spend all of our time in figuring out the rules for polite Christian conduct.  I love etiquette, I was a rabid fan of Amy Vanderbilt’s book in my teens, but I do not think that we should be spending our time as Christians competing with Emily Post.  One of the reasons the Catholic church has been slow to canonize Mother Teresa is because of an incident when she was young when she stripped naked (more or less) to jump into a river to save someone’s life.  Not modest, no, nor even polite- but most definitely a Christian act.

Quite honestly, I think our fascination with rules of Christian conduct is one of the trickiest tools the devil has come up with.  Because while we’re worrying about filling in all our checkboxes to be holy, the real life of faith is passing us by.  Now, I should be quick to add here that I am certainly as bad as anybody else- there are things I “just won’t do” and moments when I preen, but I desperately want to break out of this bondage to this world.  If not for myself, then most definitely for my children.  Why do so many “Christian” children grow up to be black sheep?  Because from childhood they are taught that Christians dress this way, listen to this music, don’t drink, smoke, dance, and read three chapters of the Bible a day.  But most children are not taught that while these are good rules, they really have nothing to do with living, breathing faith in God- faith that knows that all things are in God’s hands, not mine; that I need to accept God’s will, not insist on my own manipulations; that my first “task” is to sit before God and wait.  And that no, it is not easy, and it is not something that will ever be checked off the list, because there is no list- but it is the only vital thing in our lives.

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