Wednesday, March 23, 2011

3 sources of anxiety .... part 2: be afraid! be very afraid!!

2) overdose of anxiety-inducing information

While many other theologians and biblical scholars have pointed this out already the most common injunction in scripture is "do not be afraid". The Lord tells saints to not be afraid. The psalmist tells us that because of the Lord's generosity we will not be afraid of the terror at night or the plague that strikes at day. Armies may fall but the Lord will preserve you. The one who dwells in the secret place of the Most High; who abides in the shadow of the Almighty; who says to the Lord "my refuge and strength" will be preserved.

We as Christians, however, rarely believe this for ourselves even as we admonish others to believe it. "You" should trust God and not be afraid while "I" will freak out that things are going to go badly soon. "Your" troubles and travails and worries are just proof that you need to trust God more while "my" troubles are huge issues. In other words, we're great at telling other people to not be afraid while being afraid ourselves. We will tell someone confidently that God is in control so long as things are going in a way that doesn't personally have us in a panic. Or we may really be confident that God is in control for us but not be so confident that God will be in control for someone we care about. Parents find it easier to trust God will work everything out for good for themselves than for their children, for instance. Well, at least that's the impression I have about my parents. Your mileage may vary.

Sometimes we have loopholes we create in our personal theology to come up with reasons for why we should be afraid. For instance, we may convince ourselves that while God is in control that God has, nevertheless, bound Himself to follow certain rules, rules that seem curiously absent in our theology when things are actually going our way. More pointedly, the rules we come up with tend to be the ones that allow us to have a retroactive theological rationalization for our fears.

For instance, I heard this one shortly after Obama got elected--that God has laws set up wherein if people do evil things (like voting for Democrats) that God makes evil things happen, such as leaders in government abusing authority. This is the kind of mentality through which one Christian could tell another Christian that the power supply on his computer burned out because someone else was looking up porn on the computer. Now I'm sure God disapproves of that second person doing that but it could be the first person foolishly bought a low-end Hewlitt Packard desktop computer from a place like Costco and that HP's business practices were less than sterling.

Here's another for instance, another person was afraid as the 2008 election loomed that George Bush II was going to declare a national emergency, halt the elections, declare martial law, suspend the Constitution, and set himself up as leader of a police state and then forthwith invade Iran. Didn't happen and by that time I had remembered (as does a good friend of mine) that Republicans were declaring comparable visions of doom for Clinton's pending end-of-second-term years before. They were positive that Clinton was plotting to declare a national emergency, halt the elections, declare martial law, suspend the Constitution, and set himself up as leader of a police state (but probably not invade Iran). Within weeks of Obama's election I got spams about how Obama was setting up secret internment camps to send Christians to. I've also heard people talking about how the Federal Reserve is behind 9/11/2001. The nature of the conspiracy is not so important and whether or not it is left or right is immaterial, the bottom line is that people use whatever they consider their personal spiritual gift of discernment is to justify being terrified.

We can be so eager to establish cause and effect as a way to avoid disaster we want to avoid the msot unsavory possibility of all, that no magic formula we embrace can change the fact that we live in a world full of death in which we ourselves will inevitably die. We also dread a loss of security.

I've been job hunting for sixteen months now and I have had family members tell me God is faithful to provide. He is and has been. That doesn't mean I haven't been steadily afraid every week that my best isn't good enough and that people look at my resume and find it impressive ... but ultimately not impressive enough to call me in for an actual interview or give me a job. I've had friends advise that my problem is, sort of, that I'm not willing to lie about my qualifications a tiny bit to get a job. They didn't put it that way, what they said is that in interviews I may be TOO honest to get hired.

I've been left wondering in one case whether a friend was telling me to lie in the job hunt just to get a job and then fake it until I make it. Now it may be true that I don't believe in faking it until I make it and that this is why people haven't hired me. I really do believe it is necessary to put all the cards on the table and admit what I do and don't know how to do. But I am not sure that faking it until I make it is a fair or ethical way to land a job with respect to an employer.

One of my friends recently told me that he was told by an employer that he really undersold himself and all this time he felt what he was doing was just being honest about what he is and isn't good at. In his field of work he's seen so many people just flat out lie about what they can do they get hired. Or they have such winsome personalities they get hired and it's only months later after a trend of sub-par work gets produced or NOT produced that these winning personaliy people people get fired.

Now in the circles of Christians I've spent much of my life I've heard a lot, and I do mean a lot, about how the root of all sin is pride. Yeah, I've been told that a lot. Everything must boil down to pride. But in many ways pride can manifest itself in things that don't look much like pride and fear can be one of them. As I wrote long ago pride might as well be considered the stem cell of sins. It can turn into any other kind of sin and often does so that by the time the organ is fully formed you've long since stopped looking at a stem cell.

I've been going through the narrative books of the Bible for years now and the more I look at them and study them the more I realize how useless the stock meta-narrative is that says that people sin because of pride. Lots of Israelite kings sinned because of pride but even the godliest of them also sinned because of fear. Or, let's just say, "pride" often manifests itself in the form of fear or doubt. Will God REALLY carry me through this. Will God REALLY have my best interest in mind? To take up Jeremiah 29:11 and how brutally out of context it is often taken, does God REALLY mean the best for me to prosper me and not harm me by telling me that seventy years of exile in Babylon is better than being back in the Promised Land (actually, to the extent that the Jews in Babylon were assimilated into local business instead of being in a hotly contested land bridge linking three continents where wars were steadily fought, the answer to that was an emphatic "yes" but I'll have to put off my reflection on that and other aspects of military campaigns in ancient Israel for later).

For instance, I like reading Scotteriology but when I see links like this (to Rick Joyner, don't bother following it too closely), and particularly when I see comments about how terrifying the kings of things agathos posts are I wonder what there is to really be afraid of:

Some Christians who are more liberal/left freak out that Joyner is part of a group of right wing Christians who are, as they see it, part of a terrible conspiracy to re-engineer America into a right-wing theocratic dictatorship. So what? It's not like the old Religious Left didn't take a crack at re-engineering America to be God's Country a century earlier. Why freak out that the Religious Right is just simple-mindedly making the same category mistake the Religious Left made? Because you're afraid there's some slight chance (like a snowball's in Hell) that they will actually get what they want? I've seen Christians and people in general on the left and right freaking out at the slightest provocation. Be afraid! Be very afraid! The right wing watch and the left wing watch both traffic in the business of paranoia. Doctrine hounds traffic in it (not that I'm saying we shouldn't care about doctrine, as I'm sure anyone whose read more than three blog entries here probably noticed).

Christians can revel in forwarding emails, writing blogs, sharing information (real or otherwise) that encourages us all to be afraid. Officially we may talk about the triumph of Jesus the King but we'll blog about the Obamanation of Desolation or the Antichrist (e.g. Bush II) or the evils of the Federal Reserve. We tell others not to be afraid only when we wear the mask of public piety and then privately freak out over things that reveal that we are hypocrites.

I don't wish to belabor details about how Christians find ways to circulate anxiety-inducing information because in many cases it need not be truly information. Consider the liberal terrified of the certainty (in his/her mind) that George Bush II was going to suspend elections and become dictator for life the same way the conservative was terrified that Bill Clinton would do the same thing a decade before?

It's not really "pride" that cause us to believe these things so much as fear. A lot of us, myself particularly, can find it easy to get scared and get discouraged and paradoxically many fellow Christians who would theoretically be the ones to encourage me by reminding me of God's faithfulness are often the ones who are imploring me to be terrified about things that I can't do anything about and to take actions that mean nothing (maybe forwarding this or signing that email spam that will get deleted by government employees even if a spam filter doesn't filter them out). Or they themselves are terrified about things.

I want to write about how this played out in the military and commercial alliances of ancient Israel but that is best saved for another time. As Koholeth put it in Ecclesiastes, that which has been will be again, there is nothing new under the sun. No matter how new we think we are we are all susceptible to fear and despite our pride in confidently saying that pride is what causes sin (for others) we have fears and those fears, when they get the better of us, are often what cause us to sin.

Courtesy of Fearsome Tycoon: There was no old school local farmer's market

Fearsome's not making the point, of course, someone else is pointing out that a century ago, give or take, commodified meat shipped in from hundreds of miles away was normal. The organic locavore ideal people have been shooting for in food production is a mythical construct. The 1950s are not the only fictitious past invoked for activism in the present. The main difference between the imaginary 1950s and alternatives is that there have been more efforts to deconstruct the fake Fifties while deconstructing fake other past-fantasies have not been as readily disseminated by entertainment and scholarship industries.

Link: Priestly Rants: On Sacred Totems

Now this blog I discovered through reading Fearsome Pirate/Fearsome Tycoon's blog. And this particular entry I find worthy of linking. Sure, Fearsome might describe me as a "dour Calvinist" sicne I'm Presbyterian and, sure, I am, sorta, but I've felt for years that I'm a "bad" Calvinist in that I like to read all sorts of stuff that's not even close to Calvinism as such.

I have been convinced for years that two unequal but equally terrible errors regarding atonement are to fixate on just one understanding of the atonement and to frame it entirely in terms of just two members of the Trinity. If the whole of salvation can be summed up in vicarious penal substitutionary atonement then ours is a miserable salvation. If the whole of salvation can be summed up in christus exemplar the same problem accrues. If salvation is only described in terms even of Christ's conquest of death then once a human (as is virtually inevitable) develops a truncated grasp or description of death then Jesus rising from the dead falls short of understanding how Jesus' life fulfilled the Torah. After all, if it were only necessary for Jesus to die to atone for sin Jesus could have been stillborn. If it were only necessary for Jesus to die and then rise from death to conquer death Jesus could have been stillborn and then risen from death even then as a holy infant. Jesus could have been aborted and risen from death before He ever left Mary's womb. Any one attempt to explain the mystery of what Christ accomplished still falls short of the more confounding mystery of who Christ is.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Link: Orthocuban: "Of who I am the worst"

Nothing to add to this one. It's a worthy read.

HT Inhabitatio Dei: NYT Single and Evangelical

Now of course as an evangelical I don't share Halden's disdain of evangelicalism (though, obviously, I still find his blog interesting to read). But this article interested me.

I have long had the impression that in evangelicalism my fellow evangelicals often display an attitude that posits that real adulthood is defined by marriage. If you're not married you're not really an adult. If you're not married you don't know anything about sacrifice. Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is the bride so married people display a special uniquely Trinitarian relationship that single people can't hope to touch (and shouldn't because that would lead to adultery, polygamy, or fornication) and which is a special mirror of the mystery of the Trinity. Those saints of old who were single such as Jesus or Paul or Jeremiah were considered single because they were so apt to die due to persecution it was not wise to be married. Call this the "unless you're smuggling Bibles into China you had better not resist God's design for you to be married" argument.

Correlating to this is the conviction that the unmarried but most especially the unmarried male is least fit of all the image-bearers of God to speak to "relationships" (which in most cases refers chiefly to dating, marriage and parenting but can occasionally seem to fan out into the compass of all human interaction depending on which set of evangelicals we're hanging out with). I've seen married people say that this or that community group leader was just not necessarily gifted ideally to be a group leader because as a single man there were things he just wasn't able to speak to in the lives of married people or parents.

I have been told in rather pointed terms myself that I haven't been in a relationship and know nothing about sacrifice. It is as though bearing the cross can only truly be understood by a married man or woman who has children he or she worries about. And I cheerfully grant that, yes, I don't really know what that kind of sacrifice is like. Conversely married people may not know what it is like to drop everything at your day job to go help a disabled man whose wheelchair has broken down on a hot August day on a busy street to head to his place and make sure he's okay and provide help. One sacrifice is not inherently better or worse than the other.

I've heard evangelicals talk about things like "the epidemic of singleness" or "adultescence" and about how this is a sign of a great evil maurading the American culture for years now. I just keep wondering if this is the disaster people say it is. If more and more people are part of this epidemic of singleness then perhaps more and more pastors should be single. In terms of pastoral application a pastor who makes all of his applicatory points in a sermon about being a spouse and father is a pastor who is essentially saying that whatever practical truths can be gained from the scriptures basically don't matter to the unmarried except to tell the unmarried they should stop resisting God's design for them and go get married as soon as possible.

I have often seen things play out where an unmarried man seems to be at the bottom of the social world of evangelicalism. At best he is simply someone who has so much spare time he should be using it all in the service of the church and at worst he's a predator whose assumed desires must be channelled into God's design for him, marriage. He is unfit to speak to the life issues that matter (i.e. marriage and childrearing in a lot of evangelical congregations).

Yet no sooner has this man exchanged rings, said the right words, and (if you will) waved his magic wand then he becomes endued with all gifts of wisdom and authority and insight to pontificate, if he chooses, about every form of human discourse and quality. This is even more true if he and his lovely bride (after all, all evangelical brides are lovely, aren't they?) have sired a brood, preferably as big a brood as they can afford given God's providential provision.

The preference for the married man in evangelicalism was, for me, distilled in a sweeping declaration made by a pastor who said that there is no way a single man can do more for the kingdom of God than a married man. I notice that John R. W. Stott is going to turn 90 this April and he has been celibate his whole life. It's strange to think that in American evangelical culture he wouldn't get hired to be a pastor because he's single. He wouldn't be a suitable man for marriage counseling because, well, you know, he never married. He's unfit to discuss the matters of dealing with or raising children because, you know ... . He hasn't accomplished more than this married pastor for the sake of the Gospel, I guess.

Since it's illegal to ask prospective employers questions about sexual conduct tacit discrimination in favor of the married man seems, no doubt, to many evangelicals the safer and easier and more biblical route. Of course there are the arguments that since many people eventually marry a pastor needs to be someone they can relate to after they are married. A pastor should be married so as to be less prone to the risk of sexual impropriety (more on this later). A pastor should be married so that he can understand how parenting his own children makes him a better shepherd to the flock. And so on. These are all usual cases as to why an unmarried man, let alone an unmarried woman, just isn't pastoral material.

But if more and more people are marrying later and later the time in which they are single becomes longer. The same Paul who outlined the criteria of an overseer also said to Timothy that the older women should instruct the younger women and the older men should instruct the younger men. What if evangelicalism has in some ways strategically misconstrued the role of the pastor? There may be things a woman would go to a pastor about she shouldn't be going to a pastor about at all but, instead, to older women in her life. The issue might not be that that married pastor isn't fit to discuss issues or that that unmarried pastor isn't fit to discuss issues dealing with marriage but that the woman doesn't HAVE to go to the established authority figure in the church to get wise counsel. Ditto for a man.

I don't see any necessity for me to consult with a pastor if I have a problem when a friend or family member will do. For that matter the reason there are deacons in churches is because the apostles recognized that there were things that teachers were not really suited for. There are pastors who think that because their gifting is to preach and teach that helping people in need is basically not necessary and not really the mission of the Gospel.

Rather than say the unmarried pastor has no idea how to counsel married people or parents consider the reverse, that married men have no competence to counsel unmarried people who may struggle on the path of celibacy. The pastor who can't go a few days without intercourse without getting "wiggy" certainly isn't able to counsel someone who has not married into her thirties. The older I get the more confident I am that neither marriage nor singleness are actual callings at all but are disciplinary vocations. There is some practical teaching on the one and not so much in the other where evangelicalism is concerned.

Evangelicals have all sorts of ways to divine how one is not called to singleness and they all more or less boil down to "I'm horny!". Evangelicals don't seem to have a comparable litany of reasons to choose a celibate lifestyle because "I'm sometimes horny but what God has providentially given me the opportunity to do is more important than marriage." won't pass muster. In fact we immediately get back the "smuggling Bibles to China" arguments.

Yet paradoxically a pastor who committed fornication and has since settled down into a marriage is going to be more widely heard and accepted. "It's all right," folks will say, "He just needed to get married and once he got married he had an acceptable, godly outlet for his urges." That he didn't display any sexual restraint prior to marriage and is thereby unable to counsel from experience to singles the way he, as a married man, is considered fit to counsel marrieds won't really come up much. The odds that married pastors will accept being dismissed as able to speak to single life because of early marriage or fornication lying down are not high even though when the shoe is on the other foot they'll still say the unmarried guy is less fit to be a pastor than the now-married fornicator. The marriage sanctifies the guy who had no sexual self-control, which may even be true, but reveals that, if this is how evangelicals actually reason, then there's a whole lot of special pleading going on.

And even if we skip the whole "you can't ask about that" stage of the hiring process; even if we skip the whole issue that a married man who fornicated prior to marriage has no platform from which to advise a church full of singles how to remain chaste; the truth is that even churches who hire a married man to a pastoral role on the assumption that he is less prone to sexual sin can still be chastened by the Ted Haggards of the world. Let me rephrase my pondering this way, if Ted Haggard were caught doing drugs with a gay prostitute and he WEREN'T married would ANYONE in the evangelical fold have given him the debated second chance he's been given? Probably not. I mean, "maybe" they would.

I don't know for sure but mainly I doubt it because if Haggard had been caught in what he was caught in and he wasn't already married the assumption would be, on the part of evangelicals, that this was proof that unmarried guys just aren't really ultimately fit to be pastors, right? Some high profile pastors would probably have blogged about how this would be a case study in why they prefer to just hire married guys because single guys are too prone to sexual temptation. Except, of course, we know Ted Haggard actually IS married.

Then again, what if we took seriously that scripture is scripture? What if we took seriously that Paul affirmed that both marriage and singleness were divinely sanctioned paths? What if we acknowledged, as Paul did, that there are sacrifices inherent in both paths? Paul wrote that the married would have many cares and distractions and he would spare us that. He also wrote that for those who weren't married, well, there was all that sexual immorality to refrain from. Do we suppose that the hard time Paul was writing about was persecution? Famine? A recession? Oh, well, it couldn't have been that because we need to get the adultescents to stop being immature and go get married, right? I don't need to throw in a sarcasm alert, do I?

Now if John Stott's 90th birthday weren't coming up the same month I saw this article about evangelical singles I wouldn't have written this at all. But those two headlines hit me this month so I'm writing about them. Single evangelicals are getting passed over as pastoral candidates by churches whose leaders probably have not really done as much for the kingdom of God as John Stott has, if we're even going to bother to say that there's some kind of race as to who does more of what that matters. How many married pastors haven't accomplished what Stott has because they have been so busy being married and raising their half dozen kids while pastoring that they haven't written landmark works on the atonement but have instead had, maybe, the time to rehash more important works on the atonement by scholars like, say, John Stott?
Don't get me wrong, both kinds of men are needed in the leadership of the church. I've just grown tired of the non-Stotts acting like they're more apt to lead in a church because they're married and he's not.

And singles, at least the ones who aren't overwhelmed with bitterness because they haven't gotten married or gotten laid yet and are angry at God, don't really need to be told how beautiful marriage is and how lovely it is to have married friends. I'm more for the flesh and blood marital unions of friends and family in my life than I am for marriage as an abstraction or an institution necessary for being varsity as opposed to junior varsity in the kingdom of God. Evangelicalism in America will remain due for reminders that the varsity/junior varsity distinction between the married and single is still out there (or its inverse).

I don't know what the future holds. I don't know if I may or may not find "the one", say the magic words, wave the magic wand and then, by evangelical standards, become endued with all wisdom and authority to pontificate about all human intercourse and qualities. If I do I don't see that I will have changed with respect to my obligations toward Christ and my neighbor as a recipient of the Lord's mercy. Whether or not church leaders can afford to or able to judge by things other than appearances I can't control. God guides His Church despite themselves so that's not my fight to wage. It won't hurt to throw in a few observations about things I wish were a little different. Why not hire than single pastor, eh? It's not like that single pastor can't eventually marry, right? So maybe he doesn't know what it's like to counsel married people. Married people don't always know how to counsel married people.

If we're Protestants who take scripture seriously it's the truth of scripture that should be more pre-eminent than the traditions and personal experiences of a leader, right? As the scriptures tell us, men look on outward appearances but God looks on the heart. Some of the single men who seem unqualified may be qualified while some of the married men who seem qualified are unfit. Without divine intervention we can presume, and we can guess, but we won't know until a long way past our committment.