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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Passive Voices: When A Verb Reveals The Heart

"You may not use any 'be' verbs in your paper."

It was a bold statement and I was well aware of how it would affect my students, an expectation that proved correct when their mouths dropped open, their eyes bugged out, and a gasp of dismay filled the room. The senior English class had been shuffled off to me mid-semester in hopes of salvaging their deficient writing skills. Excited about the challenge, but overwhelmed with the task, I spent much of class time teaching them a holy dissatisfaction with their current quality of written expression and demanding that they show me their intelligent, intricate, God-reflecting souls on paper. They had made some progress. But they weren't done yet.

After shuffling through the simpler problems of comma rules and unclear pronoun references, we had come to the issue of strong verbs. No linking verbs. No "is" or "are." No "was" or "were." Their papers must flourish like living gardens full of meaning in which word weeds were not permitted. But they stood on the edge of their plots of land and looked with despair at the tiny, forbidden words. Most of all, they felt the impossibility of removing all passive voice from the papers. It took weeks, but eventually they shifted their language and began to turn "Sally was given a flower by her sister" to "Sally's sister gave her a flower." Which soon, to my extreme delight, became "Sally's sister surprised her with a flower."

Like many first year English majors, I developed my hatred for passive voice in my freshman English class. I chased it out of my papers with fiery passion and guarded every sentence from the deleterious effects of weak syntax. "Live!" I told my words. "Express!" I demanded of myself. I knew subconsciously that passive voice had a place, but it was mostly considered a mistake. I think this phase of my life was necessary. It taught me how the right word matters and makes the difference between communicating and saying.

But the construct of active verbs attracted my already law-driven heart to a form of self worship. Already addicted to the self-righteous arrogance of doing things for God, my obsession for active rather than passive verbs revealed my dysfunctional relationship with him. Nothing was done for me, passive. I did everything, active.

Nowhere is this more evident than my journaled prayers from college.

"God, I will love you."
"God, I will serve you." 
"God, I will go wherever you want." 
"God, I will destroy sin in my life."

These were my frantic efforts to do what I felt I had to do to be loved. I became the source of all my own grace, which is not grace, but self sufficiency and death. I did not realize that the passive "be loved" is not achieved by activity "do." Passive verbs are gifts. They are expressions of what is done and what is given.

The other day I heard a song that struck me for its use of passive voice.
The main line is "stop holding on and just be held."

The linguistic change is minor.
From "hold on" to "be held" you do not change the verb but the position of the action.

I did not know that there would be so much peace and joy in a passive verb.

I did not know that I don't have to hold on, because I am held.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

To Want Joy

I'm often surprised upon self-reflection how what I want and what I really want are contradictory. This is never more true than with suffering. On one level, I want it to be removed. I want eradication of all my pain and the agony that surrounds me in the broken world. I want peace. And I want it immediately without struggle or tension or battle. I just want it to appear magically and envelope me in the safety of the presence of God.

But in another sense, this is not at all what I want.

What I really want is Beauty, which is code for value and worth and essence.  I want the suffering to mean something and to matter to what is ultimately important. I want the pain to increase the glory. That's what I really want. And, by the mystery of grace, that's what Jesus really offers. Not a magic spell to erase the effects of sin, but a strong, faithful hand holding mine in the dark. A friend in the valley. A fellow struggler on the trail. What I want is Emmanuel, who felt and feels my pain. He suffered for me so He can now suffer with me. I'm not exempt from the bitterness of the curse, but I'm not alone in it either. And somehow I know that exemption would cheapen it in the end. So I smile in the company of His presence and take another step.

It's like the summer I went hiking in Alaska. I wanted to climb the mountain more than anything. Ask my fellow camp staffers and they'll tell you how I trembled with excitement. What for most of them was the annual team building exercise was for me an adventure of epic proportions. Nothing in my athletic experience had ever looked so daunting and so inviting at the same time. Of course, my goal was to reach the top, but I didn't want to be transported there by some Star Trek voodoo. I wanted to climb. I wanted to feel every step and touch the trees on the way up. And having reached the top, I wanted to remember the journey as the excellent means to a glorious end.

Without the agony of the climb, the mountain would mean about as much as a stroll to the mailbox on junkmail day.

I do not minimize the longing for restoration. Actually, it is that longing that drives Frodo to Mt. Doom, isn't it? And the metaphor holds true. For the joy set before Him, He endured. For the joy set before us, we endure. What I emphasize here is that suffering does not hinder our longing, but increases it. It galvanizes the experience into something also worthwhile. I wish I spent more of my life remembering that God values the journey.

How could He collect our tears if He did not walk with us each agonizing step up the path?

How could the God who put Himself in the position to give His own Son for our sake remain ignorant to our pain and deaf to our cries?

How could He allow it unless He knew with sovereign certainty that this, too, would bring joy? 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

On Pain of Death

I understand why many Christians embrace some form of evolution.
There's a push for neutrality and tolerance that isn't all bad, as much as conservatives yell about it with their shoes superglued to the marble floors of their ancient temples. We're trying to make sense of a confusing world, accept people without judgment, and fit together theory and faith. All good motivations.

Popular as it was, I felt that the Nye/Ham debate last year was not productive at all, but only served to further misconceptions and raise the tensions of both Christians and Naturalists everywhere. Unlike Ham, my objections to evolution have much more to do with human hearts and logic than any scientific evidence. I do believe there is scientific evidence for Intelligent Design, but I also know that we interpret evidence based on our already-held beliefs.

What is more compelling to me is the universal pain of death.

If we define death as separation (from each other, from physical existence, from all we love), we can connect all pain back to it. Bad breakups are a death of sorts. So are broken families and abandoned children and murders and poverty and disease. Of course, the grief of an actual death bears psychological and spiritual damage for those left behind. All of these deaths are part of Death itself. And I find it interesting that no one likes or desires Death, unless they are categorically psychopathic or else pretending for the sake of hipster counterculturalism. And most people try to avoid it in all of its forms unless they have lost all hope. Death grates on our souls and strikes fear into us. We have the sense that we were not supposed to experience it. It feels so wrong.

We have to wonder where this hatred of Death comes from. If, as evolution theory asserts, death is part of the natural process and has always been part of our world in the blind effort to improve, then why do we hate it? From where do we get the audacity to assert an individuality that wants us (as individuals) to survive even if it's better for the species for us to die? Shouldn't our instincts, trained to value the survival of the species, destroy that tendency? And at what point in the epochal history of time did our ancestral primates begin to value life instead? Especially when all they knew was death? Why do we still fear being forgotten and alone? Why do we spend our lives seeking connection with each other and weep when we are separated?

Naturalistic Evolution has attempted answers to (or avoidance of) these questions without God being part of the picture. These arguments I find to be most unsatisfactory, but are beyond the scope of this post. The problem I have with Theistic Evolution is a refusal to recognize that death is an integral part of the evolutionary process. Whether God started that process going or it started by chance, you still have millions of years without a rational human able to sin thereby bringing death into the world. You still have death as a natural, normal thing, and I suspect we would not feel its effects in the same way that we do if this were so.

Essentially, evolution in all its forms reverses the order. Death is a result of sin, and sin couldn't happen until Adam and Eve had formed into full human beings and could disobey. If evolution formed them, you have a lot of death happening before sin. And it just doesn't work that way. What's more, we would probably feel comfortable here. The fact that we don't says something about what we are and what we were made to be. The sense of trying to escape should give us cause to question from what and why.

Death is wrong. Not in a moral sense, but in a fitness sense. We feel it to be inappropriate. Unbelievable. Shocking. Tragic. Raw. And I think we only feel this way because we know we were never meant to experience it.

Respected scientist Carl Sagan made a revealing statement in his book Cosmos (p.4),
"Our feeblest contemplations of the cosmos stir us--there is is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height." 

Why would humanity as a general whole feel this memory if it were not in some way true? From what height was there to fall if we evolved through a process of deaths before sin brought the separation we find so repulsive?

This is also why Christianity is not ultimately about morality or ethics. Hebrews chapter 2 tells us that Jesus came to reverse Death (which inherently means dealing with the sin problem since Death results from sin.)
"...he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death -- that is, the devil-- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." Hebrews 2:14-15
There is no measurable, objective way to prove my point other than the affirmation felt strongly in the soul of a person who has just lost someone dear to them. But it is for me another signpost to the One who loved me and gave Himself for me. It is not an argument to convince anybody because it assumes the reality of God's love which not all are willing to receive. In the end, I guess the strongest evidence I have is subjective: the fact that it seems to me inconsistent with the character of the God I know to allow a blind process to produce humans made in His Image, loved relentlessly, and meant to reflect the glory of His grace.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Stumbling with God

My nephew's mobility started overnight from my perspective.

One day he was merely attempting to crawl and it felt like the next time I saw him, he was fully upright and taking sequential, albeit wobbly, steps and crossing entire rooms with a grin on his face stretching the entire surface of his adorable, chubby cheeks.

We brought him over last week for the afternoon while his parents went on a date. I listened to him laugh in the car (a laugh radiating from the exact center of his little body), and as every shard of my soul mysteriously joined in his happiness I thought, "This is the joy that music tries to capture and can't quite reach. The joy that poetry attempts to articulate and falls just short. The joy that doesn't have language or symbol or thought. It just is." It was like falling headlong in love and hoping to drown in his exquisite little light.

When we got out of the car, we had to cross the front lawn to get to the door. Leo likes his independence, so he endeavored to take every painstaking step from the station wagon to the stairs. I held his hand as we navigated the uneven terrain and he raised his tiny shoes into the air one at a time to place them carefully on the next few inches of grass.

Something struck me about how I walked with him. I'm 5'5" and it takes me no more than five seconds to make this trip from the car to the house. Leo is less than two feet tall and it took about 10 times as long for him, even holding my hand. But I didn't feel irritated. I slowed my steps and altered my center of gravity to adjust to his need for support. I watched the path ahead and vigilantly removed obstacles he couldn't handle on his own. When he stumbled, I let him wrestle a bit to find his footing, but I didn't let go of his hand, and I let him know that I wasn't going to leave him alone. I even whispered little words of affirmation to let him know that I noticed his progress and was proud of his efforts. And all this for the simple task of getting to the front door on a summer afternoon.

In that moment, I realized something else in the intricate shards of my being.

This is how God loves me too. 

Be Yourself: Romans 6

In my favorite young adult series, Janner Igiby, a simple son of a farmer, finds out that his real name is Janner Wingfeather, Throne Warden of the Shining Isle. Janner becomes the protector of his brother, the young King Kalmar, whose life circumstances eventually give him due cause to question his true identity as a king, a son, and even a human being. Numerous times throughout the book, Janner must remind his brother of his true identity by calling him by his real name. By reminding him who he really is, Janner is able to bring Kalmar back from the edge of insanity. It's that easy. And that impossibly difficult.

It's popular to hear the phrase, "be yourself." It's a phrase I always imagine being drawn with a colored pencil while flowers and unicorns and sparkles spew from the letters like on a commercial for a laser jet printer. But for all our encouraging each other to do it, few people seem to know how. We are expert turtles of soul skilled in strategies for hiding what we think is our true identity. Some people hide by being loud and hilarious to cover up their insecurities. Others hide by talking less and avoiding people or wearing lots of makeup or insisting on long dresses or making intellectual comments or devising blatant lies. But whatever our cover of choice, our propensity to shield ourselves from others is at least partly rooted in shame. We think we know who we are, and we're afraid of what people will think if they were to find out. We're bad people, after all. We know what we've done. What we used to do. And doesn't the Bible affirm this? We're sinners to the core, even if Jesus saved us. 

Or are we? 

I've been thinking about what my pastor said this past week. If we explain the gospel correctly, it will evoke the question, "Well, wait...doesn't that mean I can do whatever I want?" It's a paraphrase of Paul's "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" Of course, Paul answers with the emphatic, "God forbid!" But the point here is that the question has to be asked and answered as a natural outflow of proper gospel focus. It's one of those necessary mistakes that has to be made in holding the tension of the gospel. And the gospel is dangerous, isn't it? It's so radically grace-based that a coworker of mine responded by saying, "I think it's a beautiful idea, but it can too easily be abused." 

I agree with my friend. It can be horribly abused. But that doesn't make it less true. And what's more, it's not the need for morality or ethics that makes it so. Paul's inspired reasons for tenaciously holding to the gospel are backed up, unbelievably, without laying down the law. He doesn't write a detailed instruction manual or a list of guidelines to prevent people from abusing grace. He does something entirely different and entirely consistent with the character of the God I am coming to know. Paul's imperatives in this chapter have nothing to do with avoiding specific sins or doing specific good works. They are in order: "know," "consider," and "present." What keeps us from sin? What keeps us from abusing this gift of grace? Apparently, it's as simple (but often excruciatingly difficult) as knowing who we are in Christ, believing that we are who He says we are, and living from that reality moment to moment. This is a holy "be yourself." Be who you really are. But not the you that you think you are, whether that's a sniveling sinner or a righteous pharisee. Rather, be who God says you are.
Remember your name.

This goes much deeper than creating a false reality in hopes of changing yourself. God is stating the reality of my identity, and I am agreeing with him that I'm no longer a sinner by identity. I am only a sinner by description when I fail to believe the truth about God and myself. In my innermost being, I am forgiven of all sin and covered in the righteousness of Christ. God sees me the same way He sees Jesus, the One who lived under the Law and died under the Law so that I could die to the flesh and live under grace. 

You can try to modify your behavior. The example one of my pastors mentioned is famous for its scathing mention in James 3: you can attempt to tame your tongue. But since your words, like all other actions, only reveal what's in the heart, you really need a new heart. A new you. And if you have a new you, why are you so afraid of being yourself? Your true self is the one Jesus gave you, so you can be that redeemed child of God in freedom and joy living in righteousness from the heart. That was the point all along, from the very beginning: People who want to be with God. Not people who follow a moral code out of duty. The goodness (misnamed "morality" sometimes) that comes out of this relationship with Him is a byproduct, but by no means the point. 

Practically speaking, we can stop trying to encourage each other with directives to "make Jesus happy" or "keep pursuing God" or anything else that implies a "try harder" mentality. Instead we can exhort each other, like Paul does, to remember our identity in Christ and live out of that grace. Sometimes, like King Kalmar of the Shining Isle, we forget that we are rescued royalty. We just need someone to remind us who we are.