A Hog & Me Both

Somehow, in a weird way, Lent has become my favorite time of year. It’s the refreshing stability of rules and rituals. It’s the way that winter’s thawing into spring mirrors our hearts as we move toward Easter. It’s the challenge of tangible fasting and existential honesty. There’s a lot at play here – I love it all. And each Lent, I find myself revisiting one of my favorite short stories, Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation.

In this story, we meet Mrs. Turpin, a woman understood to be ugly both inside and out. Brutally bigoted, condescending, and self-righteous, Mrs. Turpin takes cruel joy in the belief that she is fundamentally better than the people surrounding her. We meet her before and during a life-changing encounter that shakes her to her wicked core, leaving her rethinking everything she thinks she knows about herself. After a stranger sees her for who she really is and calls her to “go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” Mrs. Turpin finds herself questioning God:

“What do you send me a message like that for?” she said in a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?”

Head to my church’s website to read the rest, or, download their Lent Prayerbook.

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The Ultimate Holiday Blog Post

The December edition of Real Simple magazine arrived in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago. Sprawled across the cover are some glitzy Christmas lights and the words “Holiday Spectacular: Your Happiest Season Ever Starts Here.” The November issue (“The Ultimate Holiday Planner”) was pretty similar in nature and content. These two magazines contain dozens of helpful articles covering a wide range of holiday-centered topics: affordable gifts, make-ahead recipes, quick cleaning solutions, winter skin care, avoiding awkward moments with family and friends, easy decorations, and, my personal favorite, “How to Teach Gratitude.”

All of this information promises a simple, cheerful, and stress-free holiday season. Which makes me wonder, why do we meticulously plan for and strategize about the holiday season? We turn to guides, lists, and diagrams to help us “get through” the holiday season, as if it is something that needs to be accomplished. This suggests to me that as a culture, we are doing hospitality wrong. Continue reading →

Rest(lessness)

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This used to be my front yard. Ugh.

I recently spent the evening with some old friends, watching videos and reminiscing on the four months that we spent in Italy during our junior year of college. We laughed a lot as we watched ourselves on the screen, seeing and doing things for the first time all over again – things which are now videos and memories. And with those memories came a flood of emotion. As I watched my past-self, I felt once again how she felt in that time and place.

Nostalgia can kind of be like a drug, but I don’t think that’s entirely what was going on that night. As I watched myself, I remembered how much more content I was. During those months, I wanted the days and weeks to drag on – I never wanted to leave. Our lives in Italy consisted of cooking, drinking, dancing, adventuring, reading, and occasionally going to class. We had no real obligations or responsibilities. In the years since, I haven’t been so carefree.

Experiencing some of those feelings again that night, I wanted to go back. And at some point it occurred to me: I can. There’s nothing significant keeping me here. I could quit my job, drain my bank account, and head back to Europe for a season. I could spend my days writing and adventuring, not worrying about my household or career. It would be the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever done, but it – and I – would be so interesting.

I have significant theological objections to transience, so I don’t entertain these ideas on a whim, nor do I take them lightly. Still, the temptation is there.

Driving home that night, I tried to digest these feelings a little bit and move on. My city’s skyline came into view, and I felt that familiar rush of pride. (I’ve seen so many beautiful things, yet I’m such a sucker for Philly’s skyline). The radio played in the background: “we’re far, far from home and we’re so happy,” and the juxtaposition of sight and sound was striking. I just kept driving. What else was I to do?

That was two months ago. I’m still here.

St. Augustine begins his Confessions beautifully: “For Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until the rest in Thee.” I remind myself of this often, because restlessness is easy and popular, but also unavoidable, and inescapable. We will never be fully content, fully happy, in Philly or Europe, as a barista or a CEO. Outside of the Kingdom, our hearts are restless. All we can do is wait until we rest in Thee.

Petty Justice

As much as I love living in a city, I still can’t shake that heightened awareness of vulnerability that accompanies city-dwelling. Philly is my home, but I still feel safer when I’m in the suburbs or at the shore.

In the year since I moved here, I’ve had no less than three encounters with petty thievery: my car has been broken into twice, and my bike was stolen. These are not heinous crimes; I do not consider myself a victim. In these instances, I was hardly violated, and the only loss I suffered was a few hundred dollars and some hours of my time. Nothing lasting, nothing irreplaceable.

But still, I can’t quite get over my annoyance with petty crime like this, and the fact that in this place where I’m so comfortable, I still need to be much more careful with my belongings and person than I am elsewhere. I also wonder why, in middle class, relatively safe neighborhoods, useless crimes like these happen so regularly (people who’ve lived here long enough come to expect them). Perhaps it’s because in cities, unlike anywhere else, everyone’s stuff is out there in the open, all the time, for all to see, not tucked away in backyards and garages. And in cities, there is a much higher volume of people – broken, fundamentally skewed, people. The same kinds of people who live in suburbs (and everywhere else), but more of them.

And people hold incorrect attitudes. More serious crimes – murder, rape, etc. – are inspired by attitudes that we’re all capable of, but to a degree that most people never experience (thank God). The attitude behind petty theft, however, is much more simple, sneaky, and prevalent. I don’t know much about the people that have taken my various belongings over this past year, except this: they all believed that they had a right to something that simply was not theirs, that they did not work for, that they did not earn. I fundamentally disagree with this. But I fear (no, I know) that I also succumb to this temptation.

Justice – in its most basic, brutal form – is rendering each his due, and getting what you deserve. Stealing someone else’s bike, or helping yourself to the contents of their parked car is unjust. But so is squandering someone else’s resources, cutting off the car behind you, and being rude to strangers. In many ways, I hold and act upon the unjust attitudes that led to my things being taken, and I hate that. I am not a petty thief, but I’m not perfectly just either.

There is nothing I can do to undo the injustices that have been done to me – I realize and accept that. But I can try to change how I feel about the things I have, the things I don’t have yet, and the work I do to earn them. Hopefully this is one minuscule step toward making this city better for everyone.

Life & Worship: An Introduction

Every week, I attend a “worship” service. I sing songs that are led by a “worship team,” and refer to my handy “worship folder” for lyrics, prayers, etc. The term “worship” has a bit of a buzzword-quality to it. At the very least, it’s a word that is loaded with meaning that we sometimes casually use as a prefix with other words, especially on Sundays.

There’s nothing wrong with affixing the word “worship” onto the names of the various aspects surrounding a church service – it’s helpful and pretty harmless. However, sometimes I wonder if it conveys the idea that worship only happens on Sundays. While Sundays are definitely sacred, worship can and should happen all the time, in everyday life.

This is what worship looks like. Except not really.

This is what worship looks like. Except not really.

Throughout Easter, I’ll be sharing a series of posts about life and worship, focusing on four topics: work, leisure, rest, and seasons. For now, I’m going to lay a little groundwork, in an effort to ensure that we’re all on the same page.

Full disclosure: these posts could stray into apologetics-territory. Part of why I’m interested in this topic is my desire to defend why I think it’s okay to go to happy hour instead of prayer meetings, why, in addition to the Bible, it’s okay to read anything from Socrates to Stephen King, and why Christians can be legitimately called into things other than ministry (and not just so that they can evangelize to the other doctors, teachers, baristas, etc.). Sorry if I get defensive – this is something that I care deeply about, and I think it’s one of the great things about following a Lord who is Risen.

This Risen Lord is worth our devotion, i.e., our worship. What I’m interested in here what worship looks like – what are the actions associated with it? The sacred activities that transpire in churches on Sundays is a start (and I’d argue that it’s non-negotiable for Christians). But it doesn’t end with the benediction.

Worship starts with recognizing who God is and who we are in relation to Him. This can mean a lot of things, but most basically, it means that 1) He is God, 2) we are human, and 3) we were made in His image.

It’s no simple task, being God’s image-bearer. Because He made us like Himself, God has certain expectations for us. We should be reasonable. We should be  creative and productive. We should exist in community. Amongst other things. Meeting these expectations is the very beginning of worship. Being human is the very beginning of worship, and I think worship is deeply connected to our personhood.

Worship is participating in human activities in a way that glorifies God. When we act like people, especially good people, we are worshipping. What happens in churches is deeply humanizing, but so is what happens in kitchens, classrooms, and coffee shops. I’m excited to further explore this notion in the coming weeks.

Technology is Killing Me

Okay, that’s dramatic. Aside from some recently discovered cavities, my health is fine. Still, something feels…off. If I was more of a dualist, I’d write about my soul being damaged or something but 1) I don’t even know who is reading this, so I’m not about to start talking to them about my soul and 2) I don’t even know what a soul is.

This rant is about my personhood, and that of those around me. It’s about how technology is making me a little bit less human.

I spend a good bit of each day interacting with data – gathering it, manipulating it, and analyzing it. This data is almost exclusively related to individual people, and I think the things I’m using it for are ultimately good. However, in the meantime, those people are, in my mind, reduced to facts and statistics. They are stored in lists and charts. I know where they live, but not who they are. I have goals for them and their data – Read this email! Like this Facebook post! Donate money! Participate in this community! – and when those goals are met, it is an accomplishment. These people have been reduced to projects, which is a terrible thing for people to become.

Until this season, I was always more interested in questions and truth. I preferred conversations that were left open-ended. Now, I’m more focused on goals and benchmarks that can be quantifiably tracked. These things are more instantly gratifying, but they pale in comparison to the humanizing qualities of the unanswered question.

I still read a lot, but now most of it is on a screen. That’s because a lot of what I read doesn’t come in a hard copy, or if it does, it costs a lot more than what I can download. I don’t remember the last time that I underlined in a book. The other day, I was playing around with the Kindle app on my phone, and discovered this feature that, based on your page-turning speed, estimates how long it will take you to finish that book. This is really helpful, if reading is something that’s scheduled and books are to be marked off some check list. But what about wasting time slowly digesting paper pages?

I used to care more about useless things like art, and play, and God. Now I care more about tools, and that which helps me reach my goals.

Sometimes I try to make an argument to myself that all of this is okay. That it’s okay that  my backpack usually contains three devices that can connect me to the internet. That it’s okay when I see people as fodder for a numerical benchmark. That it’s okay when I invest more energy into what can be accomplished instead of unanswered. But this argument is always utilitarian, and really thin compared to the robust beauty of wonder and uselessness.

I don’t know how to fix any of this.

Post Script – I originally scribbled this into a notebook about a week ago, in a moment of over-exaggerated crisis. Since then, I’ve been more mindful of my relationship with the various devices in my life. I’ve been trying to keep my phone turned off for at least 10 hours per day and keeping it off my person when it’s unneeded. I’ve been writing stuff on paper, and reading actual books. These aren’t significant or inconvenient lifestyle shifts, because it turns out that I don’t actually need to be constantly connected to live comfortably. And I feel just a little bit more attentive, and whole.

What do these two have in common?

Barbie + Doryphorus

Barbie and her Greek friend.

One is a renowned piece of ancient art, the other, an increasingly controversial children’s toy.

First released in 1959 by Mattel Inc., the Barbie doll is now a ubiquitous part of American culture. Available in over 2,000 different editions, over one billion Barbie dolls have been sold in 150 countries. The Barbie is typically made of synthetic plastic, and is primarily found on the shelves of toy stores and in little girls’ playrooms.

Around 440 BC, the Greek sculptor Polyclitus crafted Doryphorus (“spear carrier”). The original sculpture has since been destroyed; the one pictured above is a Roman copy. Originally made of bronze, this ancient copy is in marble. It is on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

Coming from opposite ends of history, these artifacts share one central value – they are depicting the ideal human body.

Polyclitus was an expert in human proportion, however, this work was (intentionally) disproportional. He probably was not depicting a particular spear carrier that he knew. Instead, he was imagining what the body of the perfect spear carrier might look like – the best shoulder width, height, arm length, and (for aesthetic reasons) head size. Everything about Doryphorus is a bit off, on purpose, and consequently we see a very handsome man. He looks capable. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the left arm and leg are being held up by extraneous bits on marble – the limbs don’t support the weight of the rest of the body.

The Barbie doll’s inaccurate proportions has been a great source of criticism for the toy. The dolls certainly don’t stand on their own, and, if she were a full-grown living person, her slender extremities would not support her long torso and oversized head. She would also be dangerously – perhaps, fatally – underweight, given her above-average height.

People care a lot about how Barbie dolls can and do negatively affect young girls‘ perception of themselves and their body image – this is a really good thing. And it’s a really good thing that our society is having this conversation now.

However, I’m really fascinated by the fact that basically as long as we as a human race have been portraying ourselves, we have been portraying ourselves inaccurately and ideally. It makes me wonder if, just like little American girls might wish they had blonde hair and blue eyes, little Greek boys wished that they had bigger heads and longer legs. Furthermore, it makes me think that no matter how much we criticize Barbie, or how many average-looking dolls we buy, the human race will still always portray ourselves as “better” than what we ever can actually be. Maybe it’s in our nature.

What do you think? Is the desire to see ourselves as something we’re not just in our DNA? If so, is fighting it a losing battle?