Posted in musings

choice, identity, fatalism, and change

Sometimes the homosexual movement (and, I think, our culture as a whole) strikes me as a bit fatalistic – as if our identities were set in stone and nothing we do or choose can change them, only repress and mask them.

There is a sense in which this is true, of course; I doubt that I could change my sexual attractions, or my intellectual curiosity, or my Jekyll and Hyde combination of loyalty and jealousy. Those things form part of my personality and natural identity. Further, the core tendencies of our being seem to remain constant factors over the years. My primary identity no longer rests in my intelligence and academic prowess, but I still value my intelligence and operate out of confidence in it; on the negative side, I am no longer so frequently controlled by my anger, but it is still an ever-present struggle to be master over it. So both my strengths and my weaknesses remain with me, and although I try to favor the former over the latter in how I live and in what I express outwardly, they both form part of my essential personal identity.

On the other hand, there are deep things about myself that are chosen and could in theory change: namely, my religious and philosophical beliefs, my worldview. These beliefs are what informs my identity and causes certain aspects of it to develop and mature (or, on the contrary, atrophy and fade) over time. A belief that integrity and courage matter pits itself, in the core of my being, against my innate shyness, distaste of conflict, and anxiety. The belief of a Catholic nun that she has been called to celibacy for Christ sets itself against her natural sexual desires – for even the celibate have sexual identities, that they choose to set aside in the service of some belief. The belief that humility is valued by God over pride wars within me against my self-confidence, arrogance, and secret insecurities. The belief of an atheist in the value of independent free-thinking might war against his inner desire for an authority to trust or a guidebook to follow. So too, I would imagine, for the traditional Catholic or conservative Evangelical, the belief that homosexual actions are inherently disordered would set itself against some of the deepest desires and attractions within them.

These deeply held beliefs are not able to change our identities like a switch, or even, in many cases, like the gradual dawn of the sun. But they are able to guide and shape those identities – to prune and direct them as we grow. In my examples above, most of the traits and aspects of identity being fought against are not inherently bad and could be considered good given a different set of core beliefs (it is not hard to think of cultures and religions that place a much higher value on harmonious conduct than on the confrontation brought on by principled courage, or to call to mind worldviews that consider respect for authority far more important than critical thinking). So why choose to not embrace those aspects of our identity just as much as some other aspects? Again, it goes back to the framework of belief, the set of principles, that we have chosen to believe and to take as our truth. And that can change. It very often does change over the course of a person’s life!

So the language of identity need not be as fatalistic as it sometimes sounds. Perhaps we cannot ever truly change our identities without some great trauma or damage to ourselves, but we can shape their trajectory, giving more weight to some aspects and less to others. We can still choose the beliefs we hold, even if we cannot choose the components that make us up. For me, this is a great hope! I am not bound forever to the shyness, the anger, the jealousy, or the intellectual impatience that form a part of my identity, personality, and character – or, more accurately, I am not bound to be forever ruled by them. Their share of my life can decrease as the things I value more are increased.

What I have left out in this consideration is, of course, the reality of the changing power of the Holy Spirit, and the ability of Jesus to make us truly new creations in Him. I wanted to try to look at the questions of identity and choice from a less uniquely Christian viewpoint. But where I do find the most hope for personal change, as well as (rather surprisingly) the most grace for what I am right now, is in the transformative and redemptive plan of God. For that is what Christianity proclaims: that from the inside out, in the very center of our identity, we shall be changed, and everything that is wrong or disordered or confused or dead within us shall be removed, and what is good shall be made to flourish in ways we never dreamed.

Posted in musings

principles vs. rules: parenting checklists and the pursuit of holiness

There are a lot of practical things I can do to help my family and take care of our home. I can keep the house relatively decluttered, I can make sure the clothes and linens are clean, I can cook good healthy food for our meals, and so on. On the next level up, I can take my boys outside to run around and explore, I can read them good books to capture their imaginations, I can spend quality time with them just being silly and creative, and so on. On a still higher level, I can pray with them, share with them the stories of redemptive history, bring them with me to Jesus when life is hard, and so on.

The list of possible beneficial and important things to do on any one of those levels is so long as to be overwhelming.

Life is complex and multi-layered, because it is made up of (often messy) relationships between (hopefully growing) people – and when we take that complexity and try to reduce it to a list of “should’s” and “ought’s” and “do’s” and “do not’s”, we find that the list has grown enormously in an attempt to cover all the different facets and situations a person might face. It just isn’t possible!

Maybe that is why, in the sermon on the Mount, Jesus decided to give us a calling to godliness, a set of principles to aspire to, instead of a moral rulebook. God had given Moses the law, and although it was designed for the specific situations dealt with by a specific group of people at a specific time, it was still incredibly long and detailed. With the new covenant, then, it wouldn’t have been feasible to extend that law to fit all the changing situations of the future world – so instead God chose to call us into a holiness that transcends the righteousness of the law, not by disregarding it, but by writing those moral principles on our heart instead of writing a list of moral rules on stone for us to follow.

So the unwritten lists of what makes a good parent aren’t the standard that really ought to matter for me. If we don’t get outside one day because we’ve been resting, or working on conflict and attitude, or recuperating from being sick, or enjoying each other’s company baking and reading and building, it’s not the end of the world, no matter what all the natural parenting advocates say. If we have boxed macaroni and cheese and fish sticks for dinner instead of an organic from-scratch meal, I haven’t committed a sin.

But if I let my anger control me, so that my relationships with my children are marred by resentment, harsh words, and bitterness, I have sinned. If I am lax with my own tendencies toward sin, petting my propensity towards gluttony by giving myself the last cookie before bed, fanning my vainglory by checking my WordPress stats one last time before shutting down the computer, or stoking the fires of my envy by scrolling through the Facebook statuses of my friends, so that those sins gain a greater foothold in my heart, I have sinned, even if I have broken no written rule, because I have let something interfere with my pursuit of God and my desire for holiness. If I let laziness and self-centeredness dominate my spirit, and if those things are the reason for the convenience food and lack of outdoor play I give my boys, then I have sinned – even though those same actions might be a sacrificial labor of love from another mom in another situation.

The principles Christ gives us are at once simpler to enumerate and more difficult to obey, because they demand all of us, and apply to every aspect of every situation of our lives. It’s overwhelming in a different way than those crazy lists that grow longer in my head every time I read a new piece of parenting advice! The difference here, though, is that Jesus offers us grace to grow in holiness – we don’t have to accomplish it on our own, although we do have to keep getting back up and trying again each time we fail and repent and are forgiven. And He promises that one day, some day, we truly will be holy from the inside out, and be able to live out those principles from the sermon on the mount as though they were our nature. For they will be our nature, and we will be a new creation, and all the mundane details of our lives (even doing the laundry and cleaning the bathrooms!) will be suffused with the glow and beauty of holiness, a light that we can see dimly even now as we strive to walk with Him.

Posted in musings

marriage, celibacy, chastity, and grace

When it comes to sex, it seems that there are two very different basic mindsets: the Church’s ideal of chastity and the more pragmatic secular view of our culture. In the first, sex is part of the covenant of marriage, a way in which two people develop intimacy and practice mutual self-giving, and the means by which new human life is created. Sex isn’t about pleasure-seeking, or about fulfilling physical urges, but rather about offering one’s whole self to another, under God; the married individual has no more permission to lust after or use another person for personal pleasure than does the unmarried. And of course, considering all these boundaries around the understanding and act of sex within marriage, sex outside of marriage is not allowed at all, and celibacy, in which the individual dedicates his or her self-giving toward Christ and the Church rather than to a spouse and family, is honored and encouraged.

In contrast, our culture today tends to view sex as a means to enjoy ourselves – preferably with another person in a loving relationship, but not necessarily so. Sex is divorced from child-bearing as much as possible, so that physical pleasure can be had without the fear and burden of unwanted pregnancies. Masturbation is accepted (although never seen as the ideal) because how can making yourself feel good, without affecting anyone else, possibly be a bad thing? People have sexual needs, after all, and to deny them the chance to satisfy those needs is damaging and unrealistic, just as it would be damaging and unrealistic to expect people to go without eating or drinking. Even among Christians, this idea that people have physical sexual needs (as opposed to desires) is prevalent, with the result that marriage is turned into a vehicle to sexual fulfillment rather than a chance to give all of oneself, even one’s sexuality, to another person. While most Christians, looking at the example of Paul, admit that some few people are called to celibacy, the thought that large numbers of people might be called and equipped for it is simply bizarre.

There’s a third camp out there, probably the largest one to be honest, that ascribes to the ideals of the Church but denies (typically not in so many words) that those ideals can be lived out in a fallen world. Marriage provides the release for the sexual urges our sinful minds are unable to control, and thus the encouragement of celibacy opens the door for secret sexual sin as men (primarily) are left to burn with passion without an acceptable outlet.

What this third group omits from their understanding of sex and chastity is the efficacy of God’s grace for His children. I will grant that if we were simply left with a law to follow and no grace to help us follow it, and if that law specified heterosexual monogamy as the only acceptable setting for sex, than we would want as many people as possible to be happily married so that their physical drives wouldn’t lead them into sin. (Or, of course, we could seek to change the law so that those drives that aren’t satisfied in heterosexual monogamy could also be fulfilled… that is what our culture does, building off of the Christian misunderstanding of marriage as an outlet for sexual need to paint the whole concept of marriage itself as a constraining and damaging force on human sexuality.) But the whole beauty of the faith is that we are not left on our own with just a law to obey: we are given the ability to obey it, by grace, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us. His righteousness is transmitted to us, not just as a legal covering, but as a reality that begins to transform us body and soul. Do we doubt the presence and power of His grace?

God has called all of His people to chastity, whether within marriage or out of it, and His grace will enable us to live chastely if we seek it. He doesn’t command and then leave us to obey on our own, but gives us His own life – Christ Himself living in us – that we might walk in righteousness. For some, that means the continual giving of oneself to God through giving oneself to another person in marriage, sexually as well as in all other areas of life, as marriage becomes the occasion for self-sacrifice, mutual submission, and radical service; for other, it will mean the continual giving of oneself to God through sacrifice and service to God’s people, giving up the pleasure of sex, the joy of biological children, the happiness of monogamous love, to be able to focus more completely on the work of God and to be free to serve God’s people wherever and whenever the need arises. Both paths are hard, and both are made possible by the free gift of the grace of God, who desires us to obey and gives us the ability to obey in Him.

(For a really good talk on this, in the context of celibate priests in the Catholic church, check out Father Eric Bergman’s talk at the Institute of Catholic Culture. He is a married priest, having originally been Anglican, so he has an interesting personal perspective on it!)

Posted in musings

Holy Week in the midst of everyday life

Holy Week.

When the profound realities of the liturgical year – the past that comes again, ever new, with each turn of the calendar – should be coming alive in our hearts and minds.

When the passion and suffering of our Lord should be the meditation of our hearts and the prayer on our lips.

When we remember the gift of His body and blood, in the once-for-all-time sacrifice of Friday’s cross and in the ceremonial establishment of the Eucharist at Thursday’s Passover meal.

When the truths that fade away from us so easily – the forgiveness God offers, the love He extends, the high cost of His grace, the mercy that seasons His justice, and the pathway to unity that He creates – should be standing out to us in sharp relief.

And yet, in Holy Week, the world still keeps spinning and life still keeps going on as it always does.

In Arizona, we held presidential primaries on the Tuesday of Holy Week this year, distracting ourselves from the King of the Universe in our quest to choose a new president to lead us to greatness. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the crowds acclaiming Jesus on Palm Sunday, sure that He would be the Messiah to rescue them from Roman oppression, only to turn on Him a few days later when they realized that His was a heavenly kingdom. A heavenly kingdom doesn’t fix our problems here and now, like Trump and Sanders and Cruz and Clinton all promise to do in their various personal styles – so the heavenly kingdom can wait, right, while we focus on cleaning up the issues we’ve got going on right now? (Well, no, actually, that heavenly kingdom should always come first, and should inform our approach to the temporal problems we’re facing.)

In Brussels, another terrorist attack left the city (and Europe) reeling and devastated, unsure of the best way to respond to danger without losing freedom and integrity. With friends and family killed or injured, people are dealing with a sea of sorrow and, most likely, anger and a desire for justice. Does God offer that justice and revenge this week? We see Jesus’s grace and forgiveness extended even to those who murdered Him, and we cringe because such an act is too great for us, in the raw pain of our grief and outrage. He says, watch, I have suffered for you, and I suffer with you – and we say, go somewhere else with Your presence and Your comfort, and let me find another who will promise me the security and vengeance my heart craves.

People still go to work, performing the same tasks and interacting with the same coworkers as on every other day of the year. Families still deal with bedtime battles, dirty diapers, potty learning, sicknesses, homework, friendship drama, housecleaning, and marital stress. The daily commute, the daily chores, the daily routines are all the same.

And into the middle of everyday, normal life, Christ comes.

With the power of His sorrowful passion, He comes. The details of Jesus’s suffering on the cross make us uncomfortable and uneasy, but in Holy Week we are almost forced to think about them.

Let these daily routines be baptized in Me, He says. Let your great worries and great sufferings find solace in Me; come drink of peace and rest. My suffering has purchased for you redemption – that all the banalities and all the piercing sorrows of life, alike, might be worked into new life, and beauty, and purpose.

 

Posted in family life, musings

unplanned babies (the blessing of limerick)

After Rondel was born, we struggled a lot with the transition from “couple” to “family.” I had PPD for months, my husband was exhausted from being up with a sleepless baby and trying to encourage a miserable wife, and Rondel was becoming anxious and easily overstimulated. We were all on edge and our margins were just about the lowest they’ve ever been. And so, clearly, we thought it was the worst imaginable time to have another baby.

Although at that time I didn’t quite grasp the theology of the body that informs the purpose and ethical applications of sex, I had an instinctual dislike of contraceptives, for various reasons: I didn’t like having to take a pill everyday with hormones that were going to influence far more than just my reproductive system, barrier methods felt awkward and incomplete, like we weren’t actually coming together in the one flesh of marriage, and we obviously weren’t at a point to consider permanent sterilization as a means of contraception. So we were charting and tracking and being really careful – and then we found out we were pregnant, just 7 months after Rondel was born.

It wasn’t our plan at all. Looking back at the charts, it makes no biological sense that we got pregnant when we did.

But you know the beauty of it? Because it wasn’t our plan, because we were walking through the tension of stewarding our resources well while remaining open to God’s plan for new life, we were relieved of the constant fear that we’d made a mistake every time that things were difficult. This baby wasn’t our choice – he was God’s choice, and God is someone we can trust.

And as the months went by, we saw the profound good that Limerick brought to our family: the pregnancy hormones that snapped me out of PPD, the reevaluations of my lifestyle and parenting choices that made me a gentler and less anxious mother, the small and vulnerable baby that showed Rondel how to care for someone weaker and more needy than himself, the bold and mischievous toddler who is helping Rondel learn to share, negotiate, and adapt even as he learns those things himself.

If we had made it about our plan and our wisdom and our choices, Limerick wouldn’t be here, bringing his incredible blessing into our family – and that is a huge reason why, now, I would not choose to contracept or sterilize. Who knows what other unforeseen good God wants to bring into our lives? Why would I want to close myself off to that blessing, just because I cannot picture it clearly in my mind now?

Posted in musings

meditations on the season of lent

“Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul.” – I Peter 2:11

Today begins a season of abstinence in the Church – a time set apart to deny the flesh and aim for holiness. While we should of course be seeking to live our best for God every day, the changing of the seasons brings us a reason to say “today” and implement a change or a discipline that will draw us nearer to Christ, similar to how the arbitrary changing of the secular calendar year naturally leads us to make resolutions and changes in our lives. But while our New Year’s resolutions often focus on things like diet and exercise that will make us healthier, happier, and more successful, our Lenten intentions should focus on changes that will make an eternal difference for our souls: changes that lead us to God, that point our hearts and our minds upward.

Lent is a time for setting aside the things that we turn to instead of to God for solace, distraction, or pleasure. It is not a time for denying the goodness and value of those things, but rather a time for remembering the greater goodness and value of God Himself, and for pursuing that greater good. So, traditionally, we fast throughout Lent, and abstain from certain types of food, not to say that food is bad, but to say that we will sacrifice even this basic bodily comfort for God, that we will endure the discomfort of a few missed meals in order to break away from our bondage to the flesh and set our wills toward holiness. Where we would find ourselves snacking in a moment of boredom or anxiety, we are instead faced with an open space of time to turn toward God in prayer or meditation. Where we would typically satiate our hunger immediately and unthinkingly, we are instead given an opportunity to offer up our discomfort to God and remember His inordinate, extravagant, willingly-borne suffering for us.

Food is the universal fast of the Church because it is a universal need of human beings, and as such touches each of our hearts and bodies in various ways. But as individuals, it is also good to examine our lives and see what thing or practice might be serving a similar role, and which would thus be a good spiritual practice to abstain from. For me, this year, it will be sweets and iPod games, because I have noticed myself turning to both those things for pleasure, entertainment, comfort, and distraction instead of taking the needs and desires of my heart to the Lord. Instead of playing a game while I wait for the light rail, I can read the Bible on my iPod, pray, or simply meditate on Christ. Instead of turning to cookies in the evening to wind down and relax, I can turn to Jesus and give Him my worries and struggles from the day. So these are small things, and simple things, but things that will be difficult for me and that will force me to cling to the grace and presence of God – which is ultimately the whole point of Lent.

We serve a God who is holy, and He calls us to be holy as well. And yet our inherent tendency is to enjoy the feasts and festivals of the faith – the high celebrations of Christmas and Easter, the joyful commemoration of the Resurrection each Sunday, even the expectant hush of Advent – while ignoring the fasts. Is it any wonder that the celebrations themselves tend to lose their power and their wonder for us, when we have sought to fill every day with pleasure and never let our hearts meditate on the sorrow and suffering of our Lord and His call for us? Is it surprising to us that we can no longer feel the exquisite piercing joy of celebrating the Incarnation and the Resurrection when we have closed our ears to the darkness of Good Friday and the hard road of obedience that Jesus modeled for us? We need a time to look upon the evil in our world with open and unflinching eyes, to mourn the sin and suffering in our families, communities, and nations, to sit with the bereaved and the broken, to understand the burdens of injustice and oppression, without instantly drowning our uncomfortable feelings in platitudes or mind-numbing distractions. Lent is that time.

Come with the Church into the heart of the world’s pain. Come suffer with her as she seeks to understand and bear the hurt of all the lost and broken souls wandering through this vale of tears. Come walk with our Lord through His sorrowful Passion, which He endured for our sake. Come, enter into Lent.

Posted in musings

enduring like Peter

I’ve been thinking today about the Apostle Peter, since our small group is beginning a study on 1st Peter, and some comments made at the introductory study tonight caught my attention.

Before Jesus was betrayed, Peter told Him that he would die for Him rather than deny Him – but despite his brash and bold protestations, he fell away when the moment of pressure came.

After the resurrection, when Jesus was restoring Peter and preparing him to lead the church, He tells Peter, in effect, that one day he will die for Him. And in the end, Peter did die for Jesus, crucified in Rome under Nero’s reign.

What his own strength and determination could not achieve, God’s grace was able to perform. Peter couldn’t make himself endure to the end, over the fear and the danger of his circumstances, but God, by sanctifying him, by filling him with His Spirit, by giving him the strength he needed to persevere, could.

So it is with us. When challenges and trials come, it is not our own willpower or character that will enable to us to endure, but rather God’s grace holding us fast, keeping us going. Instead of relying on our own abilities and reserves of strength, we must throw ourselves into the mercy of Christ, pleading with Him to draw us near to Him and keep us faithful when we are unable to do so on our own. If we so pray, He will answer; He does not turn away the soul that falls on Him.