Monday, March 30, 2009
I’m not sure where she goes to church, but it certainly isn’t anywhere I’ve been in the past fifteen years. Of the four friends whose birthdates and residence could possible put them in the same class as my preschool-aged son, three will almost definitely be homeschooled, and the mother of the fourth hasn’t entirely decided against it. I am almost afraid to admit I plan to send my children to public school.
Let me first say that I respect and appreciate the commitment, time, and money that goes into quality homeschooling. I can also understand the desire to homeschool, especially in my school district, where the school board was sued and voted out of office after asking teachers to allow their students to hear that (gasp!) people who believe in a Creator actually exist. (Contrary to many news reports, the district was not even “teaching” intelligent design, simply reading a statement at the beginning of a unit on evolution that said some people disagreed with the theory.)
I won’t say that I would never consider homeschooling my children – I can envision a few specific circumstances where I might. However, I would homeschool only after other options were exhausted. Why? I see the mass exodus of Christians from public schools as the church literally telling everyone in those schools that they can go to hell.
The Bible tells us to be salt and light in our culture (Matthew 12:13-16).* If no Christians are in the public schools being salt – preserving the remaining moral character of the schools and challenging ideas that are inconsistent with a biblical worldview – public education is left to rot. If no students are there being light – standing up for what is right and showing their peers faith in action – many will graduate from high school without ever hearing the name of Jesus used as anything but a curse word. And students who do not know any Christians personally can imagine that all Christians are all the bad things we’re said to be.
Homeschooling has many advantages, but most benefit homeschooling families and not the culture at large. By taking our children out of the public schools, I fear the Christian community is contributing to –even worsening – the very problems with public education that make homeschooling so popular in the first place.
I know a lot of you disagree with me on this topic. Please leave a comment and tell me why!
*A great book on being salt and light in our culture is Roaring Lambsby Bob Briner. I highly recommend it – it’s an easy read, but it really influenced my thinking on these matters.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
You may know what I mean by a “SuperChristian” – not necessarily someone who is a better Christian or lives a holier life than I do, but someone who appears to hold him- or herself to a higher standard of living. It’s the person who, from real or false conviction, doesn’t drink, dance, wear skirts above the knee, or (fill in the blank); the person who never misses a church service for any reason; the person who might not actually be judging my actions but who I always fear will be.
When I talk about trying to fit in with SuperChristians, I don’t mean avoiding things that are specifically called sins in the Bible, but rather following individual convictions that are not my own. I worry about what other Christians will think of me if they know I drank a daiquiri last night or that one of my favorite shows focuses on someone who lies about being a psychic.
Living to please SuperChristians is just as bad as living to please non-Christians. Either way, I am failing to live for God. Rather than striving to be a super Christian – to know God better and to follow Christ’s example more closely – I am deceiving others by trying to appear to be a SuperChristian. If I succeed in that deception, I am also perpetuating a false “higher” standard of living, thereby intimidating others in such a way that hinders genuine fellowship.
I don’t want to be a SuperChristian, just a super Christian. I want to know God well enough to know what He wants me to do and to do that thing faithfully.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Adults have been telling kids this lie at least as long as I've been alive: "You can be (or do) anything you want." Sure, kids need some encouragement at times, and often they can do more than they think they can, but no human (or furry red monster) can do everything. Neither can every role be filled by as many people who want the job. (Imagine how difficult it would be to reach a consensus if every kid who wanted to be President of the United States actually got to be!)
When I was a kid, I wanted to fly (without an airplane), meet Ricky Schroeder, and become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader -- three things I never had the skill or opportunity to do. As an adult, I no longer have the desire to do these things, but what if I had pursued my five-year-old self's dream of becoming a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader? With my naturally clumsy and chunky body, I would have soon learned the hard way that adults had been lying to me -- I couldn't really be whatever I wanted to be.
In our culture, we are overly concerned with children's self-esteem. Personally, I hope my kids don’t have good self-esteem – who wants to raise children who esteem themselves, who think they’re all that? I do want my children to recognize and use their abilities, but I want them to feel confident in skills they actually have. Creating false hopes just creates bigger self-esteem problems when they realize they're not able to do everything they want to do! As parents and teachers, we would do our children a much better service if we could teach them to discover their strengths and passions and to find a role in society that maximizes those qualities.
The "You can do anything" lie has an even deeper problem for those with a Christian worldview -- it teaches children to rely only on themselves, people who will no doubt let them down at some point. While I don't expect Sesame Street to teach my children to rely on God, as I hope to teach them myself, I do wish the show would stop lying to children and stick to the things it teaches well -- the letters, numbers, friendship, and enthusiasm for life.
Friday, March 20, 2009
While reading Sin in the Second City, I wondered why the Christians’ prayers seemed to go unanswered, why God didn’t honor their efforts to save souls. It seemed He had truly spurred them to address the social ills of the day, and their methods – though abrasive – were typical of the times.
Contrast the Midnight Mission with a similar ministry today, XXX Church, whose posters declare “Jesus loves porn stars.” Both have similar purposes – getting women (and men) out of the sex industry and into the church – but the methods are worlds apart. While the Midnight Mission had a negative, external focus of stopping the sin, XXX Church approaches the problem from the positive angle of changing the internal by loving the sinner. The latter approach seems to be the way to go.
XXX Church, keep loving porn stars as Jesus does, and may your ministry produce lasting change in our culture.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Yesterday I wrote about paying a ridiculously small amount of taxes, but today I will tell you about some of the times I have failed to be consistently honest in the small things. Coupons are both my strength and my downfall. Most of the time, the “legal shoplifting” I do really is completely legal and ethical, but at times I give in to the temptation to stretch or break the rules – for example, I have two coupons that say “one per customer,” so I give one to my husband to use, even though our purchases are on the same credit card, and I will pay the bill for both.
My husband laughs at my angst over these little acts of compromised integrity, especially at stores that have refused to take other coupons that their store policies say they should. He says using two coupons makes up for the times our coupons were wrongly refused, and that the stores don’t care about those small amounts, anyway. Yet, I believe that faithfulness in the small things matters.
Like my dollar-here, dollar-there saving methods, the little choices I make every day add up to something big – my character. I rarely face a “big” temptation (I have never been tempted to embezzle from my employer, for example), but those little temptations arise every day. I hope that when I learn to consistently do the right thing even when it doesn’t seem to matter, my habit of making right choices will make the big choices I do face easy to make. I want to be like the faithful servants in Matthew 25, who were entrusted with something big because they properly managed the little things.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Dear Ms. D—:
I want to register my children for the Voluntary Disclosure Program. Both earned interest income in 2007 for which I failed to file individual income tax returns. It was the first year either had earned more than $33 in taxable income, and the idea that children with [very little] income who are too young to go to school would be old enough to pay taxes simply never occurred to me. I will file income tax forms for each of the children – I estimate that the elder owed $7 and the younger, $1. No wages were withheld, as they did not earn wages.
When we spoke on the phone, I mentioned that my four-year-old was likely to owe taxes for 2005 and 2006, but when I calculated his taxable income, I found that it fell slightly short of $33 each year.
Feeling compelled to do what is right, even in small matters, I actually wrote this letter last night. I feel completely ridiculous wasting everyone’s time and salaries to pay $8 in back taxes – I hope I can at least give some state employee a good laugh. My motives aren’t completely about having absolute integrity, though. I also have an irrational fear that the state will discover that I failed to pay my kids’ taxes and come after them a few years from now, demanding a penalty that far exceeds the original liability (even though it would be a waste of their time and resources to do so). What does that say about my trust in the government and my opinion of the way they use tax money?
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”-Matthew 22:21
Sunday, March 15, 2009
“Jane” was the patron no one wanted to help when I worked at the library. She called or visited frequently, and she took up a lot of our time telling us how much she knew while other patrons waited to learn what we knew (or knew how to find). Just about every time I talked to her, Jane would tell me that she was the president of a writer’s association that “only accepts published writers.” She bragged about her status as a published writer as though she had won a Pulitzer.
Problem was, Jane couldn’t write. I had read her children’s books, which she had helpfully donated to the library. They were among the worst I had ever seen, self-published before the time when good writers began to self-publish. It appeared she had written down any words that came to her mind, without regard for plotting, grammar, or the artistry of language. She had also illustrated her own books, with line drawings that looked like those I had done in elementary school.
I never told Jane that I, too, was a published writer – and had actually been paid for my work.
In fact, I am often embarrassed to tell people I am a writer; I tend to say, “I do freelance work” and elaborate only if they ask. It’s not that I’m ashamed of my profession, only that I’m ashamed of being associated with bad writers like Jane.
When I do say I’m a writer, I usually get one of two reactions, neither of which is admiration or respect. Either the listener casually says, “Oh, I think maybe I’ll do that someday, too” in a tone that suggests being a writer is just a matter of desire and has nothing to do with skill or hard work, or he nods politely, thinking, “Sure – everyone is a writer!” and later pulls aside my husband to ask if I’m any good. The person who initially reacts with the polite nod, after reading something I’ve written, always sounds surprised when complimenting my work.
Sometimes, people who are embarrassed to introduce themselves as Christians are responding as I do when I avoid calling myself a writer. It’s not that they are ashamed of Christ or their identity as believers; it’s that they are afraid of facing the low expectations of their listeners. Like it or not, Christians who are committed to living according to their faith are judged by the experiences people have had with other Christians, whether or not those previous acquaintances have allowed their beliefs to affect their lives.
Many non-Christians know a lot of Christians like “Writer Jane,” people who proudly claim a professional title but offer inadequate credentials to show they deserve the name. Christians committed to Christ often have an added burden of proof when demonstrating the difference Christ makes in our lives because we have to undo the damage done by other Christians who don’t actually live like they believe the Bible. When we publicly identify ourselves as Christians, we should be sure we are living up to the title. Then the people we meet can be pleasantly surprised to learn that we mean it when we say we follow Christ.
Friday, March 13, 2009
A few months ago, I posed these questions to my Facebook friends, and I was surprised by the responses. It seems everyone has a different idea of what dating is, and the prevailing answer was something like the Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity: “We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it.”
But do we know it when we see it? It seems some people who are obviously dating say they are not, and occasionally, the people involved don’t even agree on whether they are dating. Dating in the traditional sense has been replaced by hooking up, being in a relationship, and having “friends with benefits.” But Facebook still has “We dated” as one of its choices in its Friend Details, so the term must still be in use in some form. How do I know whether I should check that box?
I’ve been out of the dating scene for more than a decade, but the way people form romantic relationships still interests me. I’ve always loved to hear “how we met” stories, and that hasn’t changed since I have a story of my own. My editorial tendencies, which desire specific definitions and the right word for every situation, also fuel my interest in the question of what dating is.
At one time, a traditional date (one person calls up another and makes arrangements to spend a specific time together at a specific place) could define dating, but by the time I was a teenager, it was possible to go out with guys who were nothing more than friends. (Some people say that men and women can’t really be friends and nothing more, but that’s a debate for a different day.) Maybe dating requires some sort of physical relationship, but many couples hold off from even kissing each other before they marry. Is it right to say they haven’t dated, while couples who meet, have sex, and never see each other again have dated? I don’t think so.
Maybe a dating relationship requires some possibility of a future together. Then again, there are a few guys I would say I dated who, even at the time, I never expected to spend my life with. And how do you account for those unmarried couples who consist of one person in love and one who is just in “like?”
I suppose that the courting that was in vogue in the Christian community in the mid-1990s addressed just that issue; courting couples only went out with people they thought they might marry. But how could you know if you might want to marry someone until you went out with them? And would those couples who did court and marry each other now check the Facebook box that says they dated?
I may be the only one uncomfortable with not having a solid definition of dating, especially among us old married folk, but I hate any ambiguity of language. And I can’t help but wonder whether many of our problems with romantic relationships have their roots in our inability to define dating. If single people could enter a dating relationship with specific expectations instead of unspoken questions (“Does he see me as a potential mate or just as someone to keep him company for a few months until he finds someone better?” “Am I free to date other people until we’ve stated otherwise or am I expected to date her exclusively from the start?” “Can I call him ‘my boyfriend,’ or will that scare him off?”), a lot of misunderstandings and broken hearts could be avoided entirely.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
I have never worked on a daily newspaper, other than a month-long stint as a stringer, which ended when I calculated my hourly wage from my per-article rate. However, I did earn a degree in journalism, with my eye toward magazine writing, and I love the written word. I much prefer reading an in-depth news article to watching snippets of information in a 30-second news story. The history of print journalism also interests me, particularly the days of William Randolph Hearst, one of the most fascinating men in American history. (For more on Hearst, check out the bios shown below.)
Despite my affection for newspapers, I have to admit that I have contributed to their death. I subscribe to our local paper, but only for the coupons and the Sunday crossword puzzle. I occasionally read the news, but I more often avoid it because I get overwhelmed by it all. When something truly newsworthy happens, I hear about it from someone else and look up the details online.
I am not proud of my ignorance of world events; I simply know myself well enough to know that I can do little to change them, and too much bad news can depress me enough that I fail to act locally to change the things I can. Thankfully, to make up for my limited consumption of mainstream news, I have found an undervalued news source: nonprofit newsletters.*
True, nonprofit newsletters are not considered news by those who know the news – they are too narrow, too biased, too eager to raise funds – but one thing they do well is report good news. The nonprofit newsletters I receive, even the poorly produced ones, contain stories of hope and change. They make me feel like I can make a difference in the world; they tell me about real people who do.
While the mainstream news reports on a housing crisis, Habitat for Humanity tells me about people who are helping to build their own affordable homes. When the newspapers report on natural disasters, Samaritan’s Purse tells me about relief efforts. When the nightly newscast features the war on drugs, New Life for Girls shows me a woman who is winning her battle with addiction.
Yes, I am sad that newspapers are dying, but thanks to the nonprofits who send me mail, I am reminded that there is hope in the world.
* Disclaimer: I currently edit and write for a nonprofit newsletter (not one listed above); it is not the first one I have worked on. However, I believe my bias toward nonprofits and their newsletters is not a result of my work; rather, I am attracted to the work because of my love for nonprofits.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Until recently, the church secretary would call to remind us about specific events we hadn’t signed up for. Even knowing that our family was one on a long list of families, it made me feel like someone actually cared whether we came or not. Talking to a live person gave me an opportunity to connect with the church and express any concerns I had about the upcoming event. (“We can’t come because we have no one to babysit.”) At the same time, personal calls gave the church leaders a chance to find out how the congregation was doing and to see whether there were any issues that had to be addressed.
My family used to matter. Now we are just names – not even names, numbers – on a list dialed by a computer. Our church is growing, but it is not so big that a real person (or team of people) can’t call through a list of members. No church should ever be that big.
After hanging up on the church on Thursday, I felt like I had been rude. So when we received another recorded call from the associate pastor on Friday, I listened to the entire message. Then the church hung up on me.
Friday, March 6, 2009
When I wrote about Christian fiction in my second post, Greg Zinner (who writes On the Run) asked me about my thoughts on Christian music. There’s a bit of history to that question: In high school, I went with my youth group to a Christian retreat where we were encouraged (ok, maybe guilt-tripped) into listening to Christian music only; I vowed to give it a try for a month and later decided to avoid mainstream music for one week each month. (I don’t recall the reasoning that led to the latter decision, which makes little sense to me now.)
In the midst of one of my mainstream music fasts, Greg, who was one of my classmates, loaned a Led Zeppelin tape to a mutual friend who was riding home in my car. The friend had also been on the retreat and didn’t seem to mind listening to Christian music in my car, but Greg never forgave me for “banning Zeppelin.” (You thought I forgot – didn’t you, Greg?) I’m sure I cemented my reputation as a weird Christian girl at that point, and that reputation has apparently lasted longer than my familiarity with the Christian music scene.
I rarely listen to Christian music anymore; in fact, I rarely listen to music at all (unless you count my kids’ preschool songs). When I control the stereo, I usually choose audiobooks; my husband prefers a variety of mainstream music. He never got interested in Christian music, and I think it’s partly because he wasn’t ever fully immersed in evangelical culture, where Michael W. Smith was better known than Michael Hutchence when we were teens.
Hubby says Christian music just doesn’t sound as good, and I can understand what he means. When I do listen to top-40 radio, I can usually pick out the songs by crossover artists, even if I’ve never heard them before. I think it’s because the mainstream singers have more anger in their voices; it somehow brings more passion to the music.
On the whole, contemporary Christian music seems to have gone the opposite direction of Christian fiction – while books tend to keep the theology but disregard quality, Christian music aims for (and sometimes achieves) quality at the expense of theology. Some bands just make their lyrics vague enough that the faith aspect of them isn’t offensive to non-Christians; others have clean lyrics that actually contradict the teachings of Scripture.
One of the few “Christian” bands that caught my attention in the past decade is Superchic[k]. I liked their sound (still do, though I’ve gotten tired of it), but I don’t think they should be considered a Christian band because some of their songs unquestioningly celebrate the self-centered worldview of the prevailing culture ("I'll be everything that I wanna be...I'll shoot the shot – bang! – that you hear 'round the world."), rather than the God-centered life the Bible promotes.
I suppose what I’m saying is that all music – all media – should be enjoyed with discernment. Just because something is labeled “Christian” doesn’t mean that it is consistent with the teachings of the Bible; just because something is produced by an artist who is not a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean that it offers nothing of value.
What do you think? Have any of you committed to listening to Christian music only? If so, what led you to that decision?
Also, is there anyone who agrees with my husband that Christian music just doesn’t sound as good? If so, what’s missing? Is it anger? And why should anger make for better music? Are the more positive emotions less powerful?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Other than her commitment to raising her younger brother after their parents abandoned them when she was a teenager, Carlotta has few redeeming qualities. She is not the kind of person my mother would want me to hang around with. Yet, I enjoy spending time with her – so much, in fact, that I bought one of the books in the “sexy mystery” series that features her as the heroine (Body Movers by Stephanie Bond) when the library’s copy didn’t come quickly enough. (I rarely buy books for myself.) And Carlotta Wren is not the most immoral of my fictional friends.
I sometimes feel guilty for being entertained by books that celebrate things that I, as a Christian, despise in real life. Some would say I am repressed, that deep down I really want to be like Carlotta Wren, able to enjoy myself without being constrained by such a strict moral code. I admit to wanting a little more adventure in life, but I truly would not want to live with the consequences of a wild lifestyle. If I lived like Carlotta Wren, I would be lucky to avoid a broken heart, homelessness, a prison sentence, and worse.
Many of my fellow Christians would say that it is my sin nature that makes me enjoy these books and that reading them will lead me to moral compromise. I should only read books, they would say, that celebrate “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8). I respect believers who avoid certain types of books because they recognize that those books turn their thoughts away from God, but I have not yet been convicted to change my own reading habits. (I do occasionally stop reading certain books when I find myself sympathizing with characters so much that I begin “calling evil good” [Isaiah 5:20] or when the protagonist has so few morals that I cannot relate to him or her at all.)
Until I see that the books I read are seriously hindering my faith, I am more concerned with the opposite danger: becoming further isolated from the rest of the world by exposing myself only to “Christian” media. When Christians block out all forms of art and media that don’t conform to our worldview, it inhibits our ability to demonstrate to others the benefits of following Christ. Books that offer a perspective different from our own (even light fiction like the Body Movers series) can help us understand the thoughts and motives of the people we are called to love. Fiction does not take the place of real life, of course – I can’t build a friendship with a fictional character – but it does provide insight into human nature.
Some of my favorite people in real life are those who do not share my faith or even my moral sensibilities. They are people with whom I can discuss ideas openly, find common interests, and share some laughter. I leave their company feeling refreshed. Though I recognize the importance of fellowship with other believers, I tend to find kindred spirits in unexpected places, even among those who (gasp!) don’t go to church every Sunday. It would be wrong of me to write off people I love just because they haven’t lived up to moral standards they never chose for themselves. And I feel much the same way about the books I read. Call me a heretic, but I just might keep spending time with Carlotta Wren – and her real-life counterparts.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
A college friend once told me that he never trusted people who did not swear and did not drink. He figured that anyone who appeared to be too perfect in those areas must be hiding something big elsewhere in their lives.
His comment came to mind today as I listened to our pastor’s sermon about commitment to Christ. When we choose to become Christians, he said, we must give all that we are to God and His glory. Once we begin living like believers, some people will persecute us and some will be drawn to our faith. So far, so good. But then he began listing some signs that we are living like believers – we don’t curse, and we don’t watch the same movies as the rest of the world.
Where’s the love? I thought. Not cursing and not mindlessly consuming popular entertainment would set us Christians apart from everyone else. But what, exactly, about avoiding those “don’ts” will make others want to follow our Lord? My college friend probably noticed that I didn’t curse or drink, but did that make him want to be like me? Not at all! It just made him more suspicious of me and the faith he feared I might start peddling.
Christians are called to follow a more stringent moral code than the rest of the world, but following the negative commandments (avoiding the sins of commission) should not be what defines us. Rather, we need to demonstrate our faith in a positive way, actively loving and serving others: “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another,” Jesus said (John 13:35, NIV). We aren’t to be known by what we don’t do but by what we do.
The church service closed with some baptisms. One of the men being baptized stood up to tell his story, which went something like this: “I became a Christian when I was little but turned away from God as a teenager. I got married and did some awful things to my wife, was even ready to divorce her. But she showed me unconditional love like I’d never seen, and I realized it was time to give my life to God.”
This man did not turn to God because he noticed his wife never cursed and never went to the movies; no, it was because she loved him unconditionally, even when he hadn’t done much to earn her love. Now that is a great demonstration of commitment to Christ!